Panthers pounce first with 79-yard punt return, lead Bears

CHICAGO – The Carolina Panthers had gone 96 games without a punt return for a touchdown.

Until Thursday night.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette avoided a tackle on the catch and then used his speed up the middle for a 79-yard touchdown in the first quarter of a prime-time game against the Chicago Bears in which both offenses started slowly. The Panthers had only 27 yards of total offense before the return.

Smith-Marsette is the seventh player in Carolina history to record a punt-return touchdown, joining Steve Smith Sr. (4), Corey Brown, Kaelin Clay, Eric Guliford, Iheanyi Uwaezuoke and Winslow Oliver.

It was Carolina’s first punt return for a touchdown since Clay returned one in Week 12 against the New York Jets in 2017, and it was the fifth punt return for a touchdown in the NFL this season. That’s significant since there were only five total punt returns for touchdowns between the 2021 and 2022 seasons, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

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