CHARLOTTE - The Panthers lost their two starting defensive tackles for the season within a matter of minutes last Sunday.
In the minutes that followed, however, they found out that all might not be lost.
"It takes the wind out of your sails a little bit, especially in the light of the way we have played defensively against the run up front. Both of those young men played really well for us," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "It's disappointing, but we're moving forward, and I'm pretty excited about it."
Rivera said that Neblett and Kearse will start when the Panthers host the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. The team also added free agent
For Neblett, who made the team as an undrafted rookie from Temple last season, the transition should be relatively seamless. He's played more and more snaps over the last month and has recorded 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery along the way.
"I'll just try to continue to do what I've been doing," Neblett said. "Sometimes when guys get their opportunity to start, they take a deep breath. I can't do that, especially on this level where everybody is good."
Rivera said that Neblett has "really shined" over the last five games. He has similar hopes for Kearse, a rookie from Alabama A&M drafted in the seventh round by Miami that the Panthers signed off the Dolphins' practice squad on Sept. 20.
"He played against Atlanta last time and played pretty well, and this past weekend he played very well," Rivera said. "When I watched the Atlanta tape, I watched him specifically. Then watching him last week, he has improved. The job that (defensive line coach) Eric Washington and (defensive line assistant) Sam Mills have done with him is really good. I'm really pleased with his development.
"He's a big body, a space-eater, and he does a good job with double teams holding the point. He just needs to keep the pad level down, but he's done some really nice things."
Kearse knew he was going to be active at Tampa Bay for the first time since the Atlanta game, but he had no idea how active.
"I think I did good for what it was, but there's always room for improvement," he said. "I want to build off that, cut down on the mental errors and mistakes, and chase the ball better.
"I'm excited, but I know I have a job to do so I just have to stay focused. I'm think I'll be up to the task."
Nwagbuo instantly becomes the veteran of the group, an undrafted rookie from Michigan State in 2008 who played in 27 games with Rivera and the San Diego Chargers in 2009 and 2010 and appeared in four games for the Chargers this season before being waived a month ago.
"O.G. is a very solid, fundamentally sound football player," Rivera said. "He's very stout at the point. He is really a box player that doesn't have extended quickness. His quickness and everything he does is within a confined area.
"He's very powerful, and he's a very smart young man who should be able to handle what we do and fit in for us and be a part of that rotation."
Shirley, a fifth-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals out of Fresno State in 2008, hasn't played in a game since his rookie season, though he was with the Bengals until two months ago. One month ago, the Panthers added him to their practice squad.
"I thank the coaches from the bottom of my heart because they didn't have to bring me in here," Shirley said. "I'm very glad that they're giving me an opportunity to show what I can do on the big stage.
"Now that my role has been stepped up, I'm going to double-time it with my preparation and take care of business – put up or shut up."