CHARLOTTE – The Panthers are hopeful they'll again have their usual starting linebackers in action Sunday in San Francisco.
They already know their offensive line won't be the same.
Linebacker Chase Blackburn is questionable with a foot injury and is expected to be a game-time decision for the second consecutive week. Right guard Chris Scott, however, is out with a foot injury. Converted defensive lineman Nate Chandler will start in Scott's spot, with recently signed veteran Geoff Hangartner expected to see some action.
Blackburn played last Sunday after being slowed most of the week. Head coach Ron Rivera has reason to believe Blackburn will be able to play again, this time against the top rushing offense in the NFL.
"It's almost the same exact set of circumstances, plus they got some new orthotics for his foot that he said felt pretty good," Rivera said Friday before the team departed for San Francisco. "Chase practiced some today, moved around pretty good."
If Blackburn isn't able to play, Rivera said he's excited about the progress shown of late by rookie linebacker A.J. Klein, who got some significant experience in the fourth quarter of last week's lopsided victory over Atlanta.
"A.J. has had a really good week. I'm excited about A.J.," Rivera said. "He played well when he got in for the fourth quarter last week against Atlanta. He made some plays."
Along the offensive front, Rivera said that Scott "never really came around" during the week after suffering a knee sprain late in the first half versus Atlanta. Chandler, who took over in the second half after Scott left and Jeff Byers suffered a season-ending foot injury, had been serving as reserve tackle in his first season on the offensive line.
"He's a smart kid that works hard, and he takes coaching and has a lot of pride," Rivera said. "That's what has carried him in this transition from the defensive side to offensive side."
Hangartner, who was released by the Panthers during training camp, rejoined the team on Tuesday. Rivera said the Panthers will work him back much like they did Travelle Wharton when they re-signed him.
"When we brought Travelle back, Chris Scott got a couple of series, then Travelle got about five plays. Then we went back with Chris, and then brought Travelle in later for five more," Rivera said. "We want to do the same thing with Piggy, get him somewhere around 12 to 15 snaps."
Wharton is now starting at left guard. Incidentally, if Hangartner returns to the starting lineup at some point, the Panthers would have the same starting five they had in the first season for Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton in 2011.
"It's almost like we've gone full circle," Rivera said. "They're all smart guys who have played together and are comfortable with each other. Plus, Cam has a lot of confidence in them because they know him."