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Blackburn, Hartsock ruled out for Patriots game


CHARLOTTE – The Panthers saw last week how well rookie linebacker A.J. Klein responded to a prominent role. This week, tight end Brandon Williams could get his chance.

With starting linebacker Chase Blackburn (foot) ruled out for Monday night's game against the New England Patriots, Klein will get his second consecutive start. The Panthers have also ruled out blocking tight end Ben Hartsock (knee), meaning Williams will likely have a meaningful role along with versatile veteran Richie Brockel.

"Ben is a big, physical guy who does a lot of nice things," head coach Ron Rivera said. "The nice thing is that we have Brandon Williams, who has been waiting in the wings for an opportunity, and Richie Brockel, who pretty much does everything for us. We feel pretty confident that the position will be handled very well."

Williams came seemingly out of nowhere to earn a roster spot out of training camp. He had given up football because of concerns over spinal stenosis and played small-college basketball before deciding to undergo another medical evaluation and participate in the fledgling NFL Regional Scouting Combine.

He caught the eye of the Panthers' personnel department and signed with the team in April, and after overcoming an offseason knee injury, he caught a pair of touchdowns at Fan Fest and put together a strong preseason. He's been active for four games this season but has seen very little action behind Hartsock and do-everything starter Greg Olsen.

"We saw some nice glimpses with what he did in the preseason, enough that we wanted to keep him on the active roster," Rivera said. "He's going to have to be sharp and ready to adjust."

Same goes for the Panthers secondary, which will be challenged by Tom Brady and Co. on Monday whether cornerback Drayton Florence is able to play or not. Florence, who virtually sealed the Panthers' last two victories with interceptions, is listed as questionable after sitting out Saturday's practice with a groin injury.

"It just flared up a little bit, so we backed him off today," Rivera said. "He was sore this morning, so in the interest of him staying healthy we didn't push it.

"He's got a couple of days to get the soreness out and get some treatment. I don't see it being a problem."

While Rivera doesn't sound concerned about Florence, he is concerned about the challenge that the Patriots offense will present to the hottest defense in the NFL.

"I'd like to believe we'll continue to match up well, but Tom Brady has exposed a lot of secondaries," Rivera said. "It wll be a challenge, and we've got to rise to it."

Coming off a bye week, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Danny Amendola appear to be as healthy as they've been all season, and running back Shane Vereen is eligible to come off the injured reserve/designated for return list.

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