CHARLOTTE -- Just because an offense is without its starting running back doesn't mean they can be taken lightly.
The Panthers learned that lesson the hard way last week in Atlanta, when Tevin Coleman, taking over for the injured Devonta Freeman, notched 107 rushing yards to snap Carolina's 21-game streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher. It was a defensive performance head coach Ron Rivera called "terrible."
Heading into Week 3, Rivera more than understands that Giovani Bernard, scheduled to start in place of injured back Joe Mixon for the Bengals, represents a similar obstacle.
"I still think it's a pretty good option for them, I really do," Rivera said. "This guy's a starting running back in this league so we've got to be ready for him and just understand who he is."
Defensive end Wes Horton and linebacker Luke Kuechly both played in the two teams' last meeting in October 2014 and are familiar with the threat posed by Bernard, a University of North Carolina product. While the game may have ended with a show-stopping 37-37 tie, it was the show-stealing Bernard who made his presence known in what was only his fifth start, finishing with 137 yards on 18 carries including a career long 89-yard burst into the end zone in the second quarter.
"We know Giovani's a fast running back, so they're going try to feature him on perimeter runs," Horton said. "We didn't do our jobs quite as well as we needed to last week as far as the wide zone schemes, so we're definitely emphasizing stopping those perimeter runs.
"It's on us to take the next step in playing gap-sound defense, in playing with better technique and tackling better."
Kuechly compared Bernard to a familiar foe while providing his take.
"He ran the ball a ton against us last time. He's quick, he's physical. He's a problem in space," Kuechly said. "He kind of reminds me a little bit of Devonta Freeman, just kind of his running style.
"He's got good burst, good speed. So even though Mixon's out, Gio's going to do a great job for them."
Much like Christian McCaffrey, one of Bernard's biggest strengths is his ability to gain positive yards on short passes out of the backfield. While Horton will be expected to stuff Bernard on his attempts to penetrate Carolina's stout front four, Kuechly will be tasked with stopping the six-year veteran when quarterback Andy Dalton drops back and looks his way.
Bernard knows he better look out for Kuechly, too.
"One of the things that a lot of people notice about Luke is that he's very instinctive. When he plays, he just kind of goes," Bernard said. "He's definitely a guy you have to keep an eye out for."