NFC South: Carolina Panthers

Eleven Panthers held out of practice

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
8:05
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Defensive end Greg Hardy was among 11 players who did not practice for the Carolina Panthers on Wednesday.

Hardy's absence was not injury related -- it was revealed later that he was placed on the NFL's commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved.

The other players who didn't practice Wednesday were left tackle Byron Bell (toe), wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (knee), wide receiver Philly Brown (ankle), right tackle Nate Chandler (toe), linebacker Thomas Davis (hip), defensive tackle Dwan Edwards (back), fullback Mike Tolbert (chest), running back Fozzy Whittaker (thigh), running back DeAngelo Williams (thigh) and tackle Garry Williams (thigh).

Also, tight end Greg Olsen (calf) and wide receiver Jason Avant (thigh) were limited.

That's six starters and a couple of other regulars -- not including Hardy.

The only two healthy running backs were Jonathan Stewart and Darrin Reaves, who is on the practice squad.

Coach Ron Rivera said Bell, Benjamin, Brown, Chandler, Thomas, Edwards, Tolbert, DeAngelo Williams and Garry Williams will be back Thursday on either a full or limited basis as the Panthers prepare for Sunday night's prime-time game against Pittsburgh.

Rivera said he hasn't discussed who will start in place of Hardy moving forward. Wes Horton started Sunday's 24-7 victory over Detroit and played mostly on first and second down in run situations.

Mario Addison came in on passing situations and had 2.5 sacks, but Rivera said Addison is more of a "situational player." Second-round pick Kony Ealy also could work into the mix.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott took a wait-until-after-the-season approach on Monday when asked if his current unit is better than the one that finished last season second in the league.

I'm not as patient.

It is better.

To be fair, how much better -- and maybe for how long -- depends on the future of defensive end Greg Hardy. Last season's sack leader was placed on the inactive list before Sunday's 24-7 victory over Detroit as the team re-evaluated his domestic violence case.

[+] EnlargeMario Addison
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers have four more sacks (7) now than they had after two games last season, and that unit led the league with 60.
Hardy played a huge role in the defense's overall success a year ago because of his ability to play end, tackle and drop into coverage. It took two players to replace what he does on Sunday.

At the same time, Carolina's ability to shut down Detroit's high-powered offense without Hardy is evidence that this unit is better because of depth, experience and leadership.

It's definitely better than last year's defense two games into the season, a big reason Carolina is 2-0 instead of 0-2 as it started 2013. Just look at the numbers as the Panthers head into Sunday night's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

They rank fifth in the NFL in total defense (293.5 ypg.) and second in scoring defense (10.4 ppg.). A year ago after two games, they were 26th (403 ypg.) and 18th (18 ppg.).

You can go down the line -- rush defense, pass defense, sacks and turnovers -- and Carolina is significantly better now.

The secondary that was questioned throughout the offseason is a primary reason. Two weeks into last season the Panthers were in a state of disarray with starting free safety Charles Godfrey suffering a season-ending Achilles injury and the left cornerback position unsettled.

This year's group, despite the loss of safety Mike Mitchell to Pittsburgh and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to Minnesota, is a solid mix of veterans and young players who have quickly come together as a cohesive group.

They already have three interceptions compared to one the first two games last season. Left cornerback Antoine Cason has an interception and a forced fumble.

"I really thought the secondary put on one of their better games out there,'' McDermott said.

Experience up front also has helped. Tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short were rookies a year ago. Chase Blackburn and A.J. Klein, the anchors at weakside linebacker, were basically special team contributors until Carolina traded Jon Beason to the New York Giants before the third game.

And as hard as it might be to believe, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is better -- particularly in terms of pass defense and forcing turnovers.

He preserved the Tampa win with a late forced fumble. His knockdown of a pass 25 yards down field against Detroit is one only a handful of middle linebackers could make.

McDermott doesn't have to wait to say Kuechly is better now than last season.

"I would say so,'' he said.

Statistically, it's hard argue the entire defense isn't better. The Panthers are allowing 4.6 fewer points and 7.7 fewer yards than last year's team.

They have four more sacks (7) now than they had after two games last season, and that unit led the league with 60. They have twice as many forced turnovers (6) from a team that finished tied for sixth with 30.

"I think we are headed in that direction," coach Ron Rivera said when asked if this defense was better. "We have a lot of guys that have been in the system for [a few] seasons now. You are starting to see where guys don't have to make checks or calls. They just know what their assignments are.

"We can be better, and we've still got a long ways to go."

On that McDermott agreed.

And the ultimate goal, as linebacker Thomas Davis said, isn't to be better than last season's defense. It's to be the best defense in the NFL.

Despite the drops, Benjamin improved

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
1:55
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The numbers don't always tell the complete story, and there's no better example on the Carolina Panthers than rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in his first two NFL games.

From a fantasy football standpoint, Benjamin had a solid opener with six catches for 92 yards and an amazing 26-yard touchdown in a 20-14 victory over Tampa Bay.

He graded out a 70.

From a team standpoint, Benjamin was better in Week 2 despite having only two catches on eight targets for 46 yards, two dropped passes and a holding penalty in a 24-7 victory over Detroit.

He graded out a 93.

As Benjamin noted, "At the end of the day, it's all about the team.''

Despite the praise Benjamin got for his production in Week 1, his overall play was lacking when it came to the so-called little things. He didn't block well, and he wasn't always engaged in the play when it wasn't a pass to him.

"That was my main focus coming into this game,'' Benjamin said on Monday. "I knew they were going to have a lot of double coverage on me, so my main focus was just playing fast with plays to open it up for [other] guys and just blocking downfield for my running backs. I just tried to play real physical on the running.''

Carolina's other wide receivers responded. Jason Avant had five catches for 54 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown, after having one catch for no yards in the opener. Jerricho Cotchery had four catches for 46 yards, including a 2-point conversion catch.

Benjamin responded with better blocks. One of his best came in the second quarter when he held up the defender for quarterback Cam Newton to run 13 yards to the Detroit 12 on the read option.

"I was pleased with it,'' Benjamin said as he began preparing for Sunday night's game against Pittsburgh. "I didn't get a holding call, so that's always great.''

Benjamin was referring to his holding call in the second quarter that negated an 11-yard run on the end-around by wide receiver Philly Brown.

Newton and Benjamin almost connected for a touchdown a few plays after the above block, but the 6-foot-5, 240-pound receiver was pushed out of bounds while making the catch in the left corner of the end zone.

As for the drops, Benjamin didn't have a good explanation other than he didn't bring the ball into his body. One in particular could have gone for big yardage as Newton hit him in the hands over the middle.

But Newton came right to Benjamin, who made a spectacular one-handed, 24-yard grab with a defender tight on him down the left side line.

"It just shows the relationship between us, the trust issue,'' Benjamin said. "I hold myself to a higher standard. I've just got to move on from [the two drops]. I can't let that hold me back.''

DeAngelo Williams ready to return

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
6:40
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers expect all-time leading rusher DeAngelo Williams to return to practice on Wednesday and be ready for Sunday night's game against Pittsburgh.

Ponder
Williams
Williams missed Sunday's 24-7 victory against Detroit that improved Carolina to 2-0 with a thigh injury that flared up after Wednesday's practice.

Without him, the Panthers rushed for only 62 yards, the team's fewest since Week 10 of the 2012 season when it had 52 yards on 21 carries against Denver. Thirty-seven of those came from Jonathan Stewart, and 22 of those came on one run.

"It was a tough day,'' Carolina coach Ron Rivera said on Monday.

Rivera hopes Williams, who led the team in rushing with 72 yards on 14 carries in the opener, will provide a boost. If anything, he will restore depth to a unit that saw Mike Tolbert suffer a shoulder contusion in the second half and Fozzy Whittaker go down with a quad injury.

Rivera said Whittaker would be listed as week to week. Tolbert appears all right.

Quarterback Cam Newton jokingly limped into the locker room when he noticed reporters watching him. Newton underwent offseason ankle surgery in March and fractured his ribs during an Aug. 22 exhibition game that forced him to miss the opener at Tampa Bay.

Rivera said Newton's foot was a little sore, actually calling that a good thing.

"Because it’s more sore than his back,” Rivera said. “Which is good. At least, I think it’s good. He’s moving around pretty good and he’s feeling pretty good about himself.

"I thought he played a heckuva football game.”

Newton completed 22 of 34 pass attempts for 281 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed four times for 19 yards.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Kalil brothers could share some interesting stories about handling adversity with everything that's going on with their respective teams.

If they wanted to, that is.

R. Kalil
Ryan Kalil is the starting center for the Carolina Panthers, who on Sunday deactivated defensive end Greg Hardy because of scrutiny concerning his domestic violence case.

Matt Kalil is the starting left tackle for the Minnesota Vikings, who on Sunday deactivated Adrian Peterson after the running back was indicted on a child injury charge.

But instead of discussing those issues, they talk about ... well, hair.

"Mostly, I talk to him about stuff I want to tease him about," Ryan said on Monday, 24 hours after the Panthers improved to 2-0 with a 24-7 victory over Detroit. "He has these really bad haircuts he thinks are really trendy. Those are the kind of things we talk about and just how each other plays."

Kalil gets enough talk about Hardy, particularly since Sunday when the 2013 Pro Bowl selection was placed on the inactive list an hour and a half before kickoff.

Coach Ron Rivera said the decision was made to keep a distracting situation from becoming a bigger distraction. Kalil doesn't envy Rivera for having to make those type of calls. For Kalil and the rest of the players, though, it's about preparing for the next game.

That will be Pittsburgh (1-1) on Sunday night at Bank of America Stadium.

"Well, there's nothing for us to do about it," said Kalil, a team captain. "What we have to do is go about our business and play a tough Pittsburgh Steelers opponent. We don't have to make those decisions. I'm glad we don't have to make those decision."

But Kalil admitted he's tired of having to answer questions about Hardy, who is appealing a July 15 conviction of assaulting and threatening ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder.

"Listen, I'm a football player," he said."It's my job. It's not who I am. It doesn't define me. But at the same time, that's where I want my focus to be and that's where I want my focus to be for my team.

"But yeah, you get tired of it."

Kalil looks forward to the day when the questions are all about football.

"There's a lot of really good people in this league," he said. "Somebody I think about is [tight end] Greg Olsen. A guy that does so much. He's such a professional. He's got this heart thing going on with his son. At the same time he does all these great things with hospital and charities he's working on."

Olsen's son recently underwent his third open heart surgery after being born in 2012 with a congenital heart defect. He left practice in a hurry one day last week because T.J. had to have another procedure.

Despite dealing with that, Olsen leads the team in catches (14) and receiving yards (155).

"My hope is at some point we can focus on those guys," Kalil said. "I know these things are the topic right now, but it's disappointing a lot of it overshadows a lot of good people."

The Film Don't Lie: Panthers

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
4:00
PM ET
A weekly look at what the Carolina Panthers must fix:

The Pittsburgh Steelers haven't been effective at stopping the run, giving up an average of 170 yards in the first two games to rank 29th. They come up at a good time in the schedule for the Panthers, whose running game has been the biggest issue during a 2-0 start.

Of Carolina's 19 rushes by a running back in Sunday's 24-7 victory over Detroit, 11 were for 1 yard or less. Seven of those went for negative yards. If you look at the film, a different player is missing an assignment almost every time, often leaving a defender unblocked.

Much of it could down to communication. Three of the five starters on the offensive line are at new positions. But if the Panthers want to be the ball-control team that is a big part of their identity, they must find a way to gain more than the 87.5 yards they averaged in the first two games.

Panthers show depth in replacing Hardy

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
8:00
AM ET
Matthew Stafford and Wes HortonAP Photo/Mike McCarnWes Horton helped the Panthers keep pressure on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Replacing defensive end Greg Hardy wasn't as easy as it looked for the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

It took two players.

You could argue three.

Wes Horton played first and second down for much of the 24-7 victory over the Detroit Lions. He occasionally gave way to second-round draft pick Kony Ealy. He was the run-stopper, doing the dirty work that doesn't draw headlines.

Mario Addison came in on third down and obvious passing situations. He got the headlines with 2.5 sacks.

Hardy can stop the run and get the headline sacks. He had a team-best 15 sacks a year ago to earn his first Pro Bowl berth. He also can play tackle and drop back into pass coverage.

[+] EnlargeMario Addison
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsMario Addison (97) notched 2.5 sacks of Stafford.
But Hardy didn't play on Sunday. The Panthers deactivated him under intense public scrutiny surrounding his July 15 conviction for assaulting and threatening his ex-girlfriend.

Hardy is arguably the team's most valuable defensive player outside of linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Hardy played 51 of 56 snaps in the opener at Tampa Bay, a 20-14 victory. Addison was in for 10 snaps and Horton 13.

"Greg is a high-energy guy," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said after the victory over Detroit. "He brings an attitude to our team, and we definitely missed him out there."

Coach Ron Rivera said Hardy will return and play again this season. He didn't say whether it would be Sunday night against Pittsburgh or the following week at Baltimore, but he made it clear Hardy likely would play before his Nov. 17 appeal in front of a jury.

Fortunately for the Panthers, they have the numbers to replace him. And after two more games, they'll have even more depth with Frank Alexander returning from a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse program. Rivera said Alexander was the most valuable player in training camp.

What Sunday showed was the Panthers not only have one of the best fronts in the NFL, they have one of the deepest.

"Absolutely," Horton said. "It doesn't matter who gets the start. Everyone is trained at a high level."

Against Detroit, they all played at a high level. Let me tell you about the two main characters.

Horton (6-foot-5, 265) signed with Carolina as an undrafted rookie out of the University of Southern California last season. He had two sacks and eight tackles in 2013.

He wears 96. He has a tightly trimmed chinstrap beard. His dad, Mike Horton, was Gemini on "American Gladiators." Wes had two sacks last season, both against Tampa Bay.

Addison is a fourth-year player from Troy, originally signed by the Chicago Bears as an undrafted free agent in 2011. After bouncing between Indianapolis and Washington, he finally settled in at Carolina near the end of the 2012 season.

He had 2.5 sacks in a reserve role last season. The Panthers gave him a two-year extension in June. During a trip to Puerto Rico to celebrate he fell off a jet ski and thought he was going to drown.

"I've never been so scared in my life," he said during training camp. "I don't know how to swim, so without the life vest I would have died."

Addison wears No. 97. He also has a beard, but it is long and scruffy. He is considered undersized at 6-2 and 255 pounds. But what he lacks in size he makes up for in speed.

"He's one of the fastest guys I've ever seen at practice," center Ryan Kalil said. "The guy runs around like he's a linebacker."

The speed came in handy late against Detroit when the Lions had to pass. Their tackles couldn't match Addison's first step coming off the edge.

Rivera calls him a "situational football player for us."

"He is speed off the edge and a forceful special teams guy," he said. "Guys understand their roles, and they do their roles the best that they can. That was a great example for us."

It also was a reminder of how much it takes to replace Hardy.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton missed the season opener with broken ribs. Then defensive end Greg Hardy was deactivated for the second game.

For most of the first two weeks of the NFL season, the focus on the Carolina Panthers has been off the field.

They're 2-0 on it, in case anybody hasn't noticed.

The Panthers have shown in consecutive weeks that they are bigger than one player. When Newton was out, backup Derek Anderson had a top-five quarterback rating in a victory at Tampa Bay. In Hardy's absence, backup Mario Addison stepped up with 2.5 sacks in Sunday's 24-7 victory against Detroit.

The Panthers faced a week of scrutiny for not disciplining Hardy, who is appealing a July 15 guilty verdict on domestic violence charges. The criticism coincided with the Baltimore Ravens' release of Ray Rice, who was shown on video punching his then-fiancée, and the Minnesota Vikings' decision to deactivate Adrian Peterson, who is charged with negligent injury to a child.

"For us, the biggest thing is not to get caught up in all the sensationalism and really let the facts play out before we start passing judgment and having opinions about it publicly," Panthers center Ryan Kalil said, describing how he and his teammates are approaching the Hardy situation.

"That's what we've decided as a team, and that's what we're doing. And the biggest thing, at the end of the day we still have a job to do."

So far, they've done it well. Ron Rivera's team is focused so much on winning that, as wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery noted, some players weren't really aware of Hardy being deactivated until they got on the field.

"It starts with the head man," Cotchery said. "Every day, Coach Rivera focuses us in on the game plan."

The defense has proven to be every bit as good as the one that finished second in the league a season ago. It might be one of the deepest, too, as the Panthers didn't miss a beat without Hardy.

"We're a complete team," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said. "It's not about one man around here. It's all about us coming together and playing as a team, offensively, defensively and special teams.

"When we're able to do that, we can be a special bunch."

Sunday's win indeed was a team victory. Seven different players caught passes from Newton, who compiled a rating of 100.2 after a slow start.

Even placekicker Graham Gano had a fumble recovery.

And did I mention leading rusher DeAngelo Williams (thigh) didn't play, either?

"We're just trying to win a championship," Cotchery said.

That has been the focus since San Francisco spoiled last season's storybook run by defeating Carolina 23-10 in the playoffs.

"No disrespect, it's not about what you guys say, it's not about what anybody says outside this organization," Newton said to reporters. "At the end of the day, if the 53 guys that are ready to go come day are on the same page, there's no telling what our team can do.

"That's what we're showing, guys that believe in each other, believing in ourselves and not playing for ourselves, playing for the persons that are next to us. With that attitude we'll go a long way."
Observed and heard in the locker room after the Carolina Panthers' 24-7 victory over the Detroit Lions:
    Johnson
  • I didn't talk to a Panthers player who didn't want defensive end Greg Hardy, placed on the inactive list on Sunday by coach Ron Rivera in response to his domestic violence case, back on the field as soon as possible. End Charles Johnson responded, "Of course I want him back. Why would you ask that?"
  • Defensive end Mario Addison, who played more than normal with Hardy gone, spent more time talking to the media after collecting 2.5 sacks. Addison, who totaled one sack in the past four seasons, seemed to enjoy it. When told linebacker Thomas Davis called him one of the fastest players on the team, he said, "I'd give TD a run for his money."
  • Quarterback Cam Newton began his postgame news conference by saying his "Donkey Kong Suh" comment about Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh earlier in the week was a joke. He said if anything it was meant as a compliment. "If anything," Newton said, "I should have called him 'Wreck-It Ralph.'"
  • Asked what the key was for Carolina, free safety Thomas DeCoud said: "Know where 81 is." No. 81 is Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson, otherwise known as "Megatron." DeCoud tipped a deep pass intended for Johnson in the second half with the outcome still in doubt. Cornerback Melvin White intercepted it.
  • The big question before the season was, "Who will catch the ball for the Panthers?" Newton completed 22 of 34 pass attempts for 281 yards and a touchdown to seven different receivers. Asked if that will stop the questions, wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said, "We're just trying to win a championship. That's the focus for us."

Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
4:07
PM ET

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 24-7 victory over the Detroit Lions at Bank of America Stadium.

What it means: The preseason talk of Carolina's demise may have been a bit premature. While it's early, the Panthers won their opener at Tampa Bay without starting quarterback Cam Newton. Then on Sunday they beat the Lions amid the distraction of sack leader Greg Hardy being deactivated before kickoff. They've done this with a suffocating defense that has picked up where it left off last season when it finished second in the NFL. They've done it with a new group of receivers who are proving to be just as good if not better than last season's unit. They are off to their first 2-0 start since 2008 after three straight years of opening 1-3.

Stock Watch: The Panthers replaced Hardy with Wes Horton and Mario Addison. Horton played mostly on first and second down, with Addison coming in for passing situations. Addison's stock took a big jump up with 2½ sacks.

Stock Watch II: Carolina re-signed kicker Graham Gano to a four-year deal during the offseason. He proved his worth in this one with field goals of 29, 53 and 38 yards. That Detroit's Nate Freese missed a pair of 49-yarders in the first half made Gano look even better. Gano also recovered a fumble on a kickoff return. And there was no run-in with a trombone player this week.

Game ball: The defense that held Detroit's high-powered offense to a touchdown is worthy, but if I had to give it to one player it has to be Newton. In his first start of 2014 after missing the opener with fractured ribs, he completed 22 of 34 pass attempts for 281 yards and a touchdown. He also completed a two-point conversion pass and rushed four times for 19 yards.

What's next: Next Sunday night, the Panthers play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are 1-1 after a Thursday night loss to Baltimore.

Cason making most of second chance

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
5:00
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Antoine Cason was trying to explain how he didn't handle certain things well early in his NFL career. He referred to adversity, but was vague, saying "it was just things like playing, not playing.''

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who was the defensive coordinator at San Diego when the Chargers selected the cornerback out of Arizona with the 27th pick of the draft, was more to the point.

"Quite honestly, I had to bench him,'' Rivera said.

But Rivera gave Cason a second chance. He started him in 15 games in 2010, his last season in San Diego before becoming Carolina's head coach.

Cason
Rivera gave Cason a second chance again this season, signing him to a one-year deal after Arizona used him as a backup for 16 games in 2013.

So far, Cason hasn't let him down. He had a team-best nine tackles and an interception in a 20-14 season-opening victory at Tampa Bay. He has reminded Rivera of the player who started 45 games during a three-year stretch (2010-2012) with the Chargers.

"When I watched tape on him from the [Tampa] game I saw things I really liked and remembered,'' Rivera said. "Just the way he was playing with vision, the position he put himself in on a couple of his snaps.''

Cason didn't draw much attention when Carolina offered him the veteran minimum ($795,000) during the offseason. But Rivera and his staff saw something that made them believe he could replace Captain Munnerlyn as a starter opposite Melvin White.

He definitely was an upgrade in size from Munnerlyn, the shortest player on the team at 5-foot-8. The Panthers have upgraded in size across the board in their secondary, now starting Cason (6-0) and White (6-1) on the corners, Thomas DeCoud (6-2) and Roman Harper (6-1) at the safety spots.

When they are in nickel, they bring in rookie Bene' Benwikere (6-0) to play the role Munnerlyn did. The first sub off the bench will be Josh Norman (6-0).

If there's one thing Carolina learned from watching Seattle win the Super Bowl last season, having big, aggressive defensive backs with long arm spans is an advantage with so many big wide receivers and tight ends.

The added size definitely should help in Sunday's home opener against Detroit and 6-5 receiver Calvin Johnson, who had seven catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns last week against the New York Giants.

"He's definitely one of the best receivers in this league,'' Cason said. "You bring your A game, play physical at the point of attack and get after it.''

Cason appreciates his second chance. He admits he's a better play today because of what happened with his first chance. He admits he has something to prove.

"That's every time out for me, something to prove, something to prove,'' Cason said. "Never get comfortable and never get satisfied with where I am.''

That'll come in handy on Sunday as the Carolina secondary, new with the exception of White, has something to prove against a potent Detroit passing game.

DeAngelo Williams (thigh) questionable

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
1:42
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams did not practice on Friday for the second straight day with a thigh injury and is listed as questionable for Sunday's home opener against the Detroit Lions.

Williams did run prior to practice, but his status for the game is up in the air.

"I'm concerned,'' coach Ron Rivera said. "He's a running back and he's got to rely on that burst. Based on what he ran today, I've got to see where he is tomorrow. If he's the slightest big hampered by it, [he'll sit].''

Williams, 31, led Carolina (1-0) with 72 yards rushing in last week's 20-14 victory over Tampa Bay. He practiced full on Wednesday, then came in with a sore thigh on Thursday.

"It's the burst you always worry about,'' Rivera said.

Williams led the team in rushing with 843 yards last season and is the team's all-time leader with 6,627 rushing yards and 46 rushing touchdowns.

He has dedicated this season to his mother, who died of breast cancer in May. He died his hair pink for the opener at Tampa Bay.

Stewart
If Williams doesn't play, Jonathan Stewart will get the start. Stewart has missed most of the last two seasons with ankle injuries, but said prior to this season he felt the best he has in three years.

Stewart has 4,036 career rushing yards. He had a career-best 1,133 yards in 2009 when he and Williams became the first pair of backs to rush for more than 1,100 yards on the same team in the same season.

Rivera said Stewart would split carries with Mike Tolbert and Fozzy Whittaker if Williams can't play. Whittaker led the team in rushing during the preseason.

Meanwhile, tight end Greg Olsen returned to practice after leaving on Thursday to be with his son T.J., who is recovering from his third open heart surgery since being born in 2012 with a congenital heart defect.

Rivera didn't go into details but said things were going well for Olsen's son.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You couldn't help but notice Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen as he left Thursday's practice in a full sprint only minutes after arriving.

There was a distressed look on his face.

It's a natural reaction for a parent when your son is in a nearby hospital needing a procedure after recently going through his third open heart surgery since being born in 2012 with a heart defect.

The team said a prayer for Olsen, who assured coach Ron Rivera he would be back Friday and ready to go for Sunday's home opener against Detroit. Olsen was back, and tweeted that his son is recovering well.

.

Carolina needs Olsen on the field almost like his son T.J. needed him by his side Thursday. The eighth-year veteran is critical to what the Panthers do offensively, leading the team in receptions (73) and touchdown catches (6) last season and starting this season with a team-high eight catches for 83 yards and a touchdown in a 20-14 victory at Tampa Bay.

Olsen might be the best tight end in the NFL who hasn't made the Pro Bowl.

Maybe now that Tony Gonzalez is retired, Antonio Gates is past his prime and Rob Gronkowski is another injury waiting to happen, Olsen will get noticed on the field the way he was noticed running off the field Thursday.

He should have been already.

[+] EnlargeGreg Olsen
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsSince being drafted in 2007, Greg Olsen ranks fifth among tight ends in receptions (389), eighth in yards (4,263) and eighth in receiving TDs (37).
That Olsen hasn't made the Pro Bowl since Chicago selected him with the 31st pick of the 2007 draft is somewhat surprising. He had the numbers to make it last season, maybe even the year before, when he had 69 catches for 843 yards and five touchdowns.

"It's disappointing because I know what a good player Greg is," four-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said. "The hard thing is you have some older guys who are some big-name recognition guys and they still play pretty good football. For him, he's just in a holding pattern for those spots.

"I consider him a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end, and not just his production and what he does on the field, but he's an incredible pro."

That Olsen has played in the NFC South with New Orleans' Jimmy Graham and, until last season, Atlanta's Gonzalez makes it easier to understand the snub. But consider that since 2008 Olsen is the only tight end in the NFL to catch at least five touchdowns a season.

Consider that, since entering the league, Olsen ranks fifth among tight ends in receptions (389), eighth in yards (4,263) and eighth in receiving touchdowns (37).

And all it cost the Panthers to get Olsen from Chicago in 2011 was a third-round pick, which looks like a steal now.

Yet when the top tight ends in the NFL come up in conversation, Olsen's name seldom is mentioned.

Perhaps it comes down to notoriety and touchdowns for Pro Bowl consideration. Graham was a no-brainer last season with 86 catches and 16 touchdowns. San Francisco's Vernon Davis had 21 fewer catches than Olsen but had 13 touchdowns. Denver's Julius Thomas had eight fewer catches but had 12 touchdowns.

"People don't give Greg Olsen enough credit for the type of football player he is," Rivera said. "He first of all studies and understands the game very well, and he knows exactly where he needs to be in certain situations.

"He understands who he's going up against and what they do well in terms of defense."

And it doesn't matter who is throwing him the ball, Newton or backup Derek Anderson, who played in the opener while Newton gave his fractured ribs an extra week to heal.

"Greg is an underrated talent in this league, to say the least," said Newton, who will be back in the lineup Sunday. "He understands what his purpose is for each and every play, as well as correcting the play calls in the huddle during the game -- what people don't see.

"For Greg, it's being consistent, a reliable source each and every time the ball is thrown to him. And that's what I like about him the most."

It's not just Olsen's receiving that makes him Pro Bowl-caliber. He plays a big part in Carolina's running game that is key to this ball control offense.

"You watch the Tampa game, he can block, man," Kalil said. "He's one of the better blocking tight ends I've ever played with or seen."

Backup tight end Ed Dickson didn't know a lot about Olsen before arriving in Carolina from Baltimore. But after spending the offseason and preseason working with him, he believes Olsen is one of the best tight ends in the league.

"He's a great individual player, and he makes the team better," Dickson said. "Whoever makes the team better deserves to go to the Pro Bowl. And when you can do the things Greg does, it's a matter of time before he makes the Pro Bowl."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy returned to practice on Thursday, a day after being excused from practice to meet with the attorney representing him in his domestic violence case.

Coach Ron Rivera said on Wednesday that Hardy would start Sunday's home opener against Detroit if he returned on Thursday and there were no issues with him picking up the game plan.

Hardy led the team in sacks last season with 15, and had one of the team's three in Sunday's 20-14 victory over Tampa Bay.

Rivera made it clear Hardy's absence had nothing to do with impending discipline from the NFL regarding his July 15 guilty verdict for assaulting and threatening ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder in May.

Neither the NFL nor the Panthers have disciplined Hardy because the verdict is under appeal. A court date of Nov. 17 has been set, but Hardy's attorney says the jury trial likely won't occur until sometime in 2015.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was supposed to be in Charlotte on Wednesday for a function in which Panthers owner Jerry Richardson was given an award. He canceled those plans to return to New York.

Richardson gave an emotional statement in which he said he was "against domestic violence'' in response to critics who believe he's been too lenient with Hardy. Sources said Hardy did not meet with Goodell, who was in North Carolina for a couple of events.

Meanwhile, quarterback Cam Newton continued to look good in practice and appears set to make his first start of 2014. Newton was held out of the opener to give his fractured ribs an extra week to heal.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- At 6-foot-3 and more than 250 pounds, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is an imposing figure in any room. He exudes power.

But Wednesday night, as he stood in the McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square to receive the Echo Award Against Indifference, he broke down and cried.

Richardson, 78, had to stop several times to gather himself as he addressed critics who have accused him of being too lenient on Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who has been playing for the Panthers while appealing a guilty verdict on domestic violence charges.

For months, Richardson and the Panthers seemed to keep Hardy's legal situation from becoming a distraction to the team.

That has changed.

On Monday, video emerged of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out Janay Palmer -- then his fiancée, now his wife -- during an altercation in an Atlantic City casino elevator. The Ravens responded to the video by releasing Rice. The NFL, which had previously suspended Rice two games for the incident, made the suspension indefinite.

This put the spotlight on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who was scheduled to attend Wednesday's Echo Award ceremony in Charlotte before a change of plans.

It put the spotlight back on Hardy, who missed Wednesday's practice to meet with the attorney representing him in his domestic violence case.

It put the spotlight on Richardson, who has been criticized for letting the legal process play out instead of punishing Hardy.

"Standing before you tonight, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge an issue weighing heavily on our sport and our society," Richardson said as he struggled to breathe and maintain his composure. "When it comes to domestic violence, my stance is not one of indifference. I stand firmly against domestic violence, plain and simple.

"To those who would suggest that we've been too slow to act, I ask that you consider not to be too quick to judge. Over the course of our 20 years, we have worked extremely hard to build an organization of integrity. ... I will work hard to continue to earn your trust."

Earlier in the day, Panthers coach Ron Rivera was terse with his answers to questions regarding Hardy's whereabouts. It came to a head when Rivera was asked what his focal points would be in preparation for the Detroit Lions' upcoming visit.

"Beating them," Rivera said. "And that's it. This is football. This is what we're doing here. We're trying to prepare for a football game against a very good football team.

"There's a lot of things going on. I get that. I understand that. But at the same time, we're going to continue about the business. It's a very tragic situation that's going on [with Rice and his wife]. I have a tremendous amount of empathy and respect for the people who are in this situation. It's very difficult. But I'm going to only talk about football from this point on. Just understand that. OK?"

Panthers players did a good job of avoiding the topic by basically choosing not to talk about it. But it won't go away. When Hardy returns Thursday, the focus will be his meeting with his attorney.

In the meantime, Greg Hardy will keep practicing. He’ll keep playing. The Panthers will continue to face criticism. And some critics want Hardy punished just like Rice was, even though Rice admitted guilt by entering into a pretrial intervention program. Hardy hasn't admitted to anything and his appeal is pending.

Jerry Richardson likes to be in control. He doesn't mind making hard decisions. He fired his owns sons to make the Panthers organization stronger.

But on this, he apparently feels powerless. It has left him in tears.

And the tears are a sign that neither he nor the organization can keep Hardy from being a distraction any longer.

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