CHARLOTTE – The defense will be without defensive end Charles Johnson for Sunday's game at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and quite possibly longer, but the prospects of linebacker Luke Kuechly returning have brightened.
Head coach Ron Rivera said Monday that Johnson, who suffered a hamstring injury late in the third quarter of Carolina's 27-22 win over New Orleans, will be reevaluated after the Panthers play Tampa Bay in Week 4 and then have their bye in Week 5. Rivera admitted the injury could keep Johnson out longer than that but it's too early to say.
"We'll see how it is after this week is over and how he is during the bye week with treatments and when he starts working out," Rivera said. "We'll see how long it will be, but he'll most certainly be out this week for sure. Hopefully he'll get an opportunity to have it calm down a lot and get his strength back, and we'll see how he is out of the bye week."
It sounds like Kuechly might not have to wait until after the bye to return. Rivera said Kuechly took another step Sunday in the concussion protocol and that he could tackle the final step – getting clearance from an independent neurologist – in time to return to the practice field Wednesday.
"He's moving up in the protocol, he really is, and hopefully we'll have some good news tomorrow," Rivera said Monday. "We'll see. He met with the doctors on Sunday, and he's got another hurdle to clear as he goes through this process. … Hopefully it will come to fruition soon."
Kuechly, who suffered a concussion late in the first half of the season opener, felt well enough to be on the sidelines for the Saints game.
"He was really engaged with the defensive coaching staff and players, and even with me," Rivera said.
Fellow linebacker Thomas Davis didn't play down the stretch Sunday because of a pectoral injury that Rivera didn't sound overly alarmed by, though Rivera did think Davis would get an MRI to be sure.
Johnson's injury came on a day when the Panthers got to Saints backup quarterback Luke McCown for just one sack, but Rivera credited New Orleans' game plan predicated on quick passes while also praising his defense for not allowing any big plays downfield.
Still, if Johnson's injury does linger, Rivera admitted the Panthers might have to look beyond current defensive ends Mario Addison, Kony Ealy and Wes Horton. Defensive tackle Kawann Short can fill it at end, but Rivera said he'd rather keep Short where he is.
"He's an explosive guy who has been an emergency D-end for us," Rivera said. "We have (defensive end) Rakim (Cox) on practice squad, who had a really nice training camp for us, but we're going to sit down and talk about it.
"We're talking about a veteran guy that we're going to miss. He's a solid football player for us that does a lot of good things."
Rivera isn't very concerned about running back Jonathan Stewart, who took a hard hit to the leg Sunday. Stewart was replaced on Carolina's final offensive series by rookie Cameron Artis-Payne.
View the top photos of Panthers vs. Saints by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.