CHARLOTTE – After injuries devastated the Panthers secondary in advance of their Week 3 game against the New York Giants, the team faced some difficult decisions from a personnel perspective.
Now, with a shutout victory over the Giants in hand and an extra week of recovery time created by the bye week, the Panthers will again face difficult decisions in the secondary.
This time, it's a good problem to have.
"The bye week was critical for us," safety Mike Mitchell said. "We were obviously banged up going into the Giants game, but we held our own. Now coming back this week, it's great to have everybody taking a step forward, getting healthy.
"Obviously you're not as good when you have guys injured, so to get our team back close to 100 percent was critical for us."
With safety Charles Godfrey suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 2 and cornerbacks Josh Thomas, D.J. Moore and James Dockery and safety Quintin Mikell sidelined in Week 3, the Panthers started rookie Robert Lester at safety after elevating him from the practice squad and veteran Drayton Florence at cornerback after signing him as a free agent.
Monday, when the Panthers returned from their long weekend off, Thomas (concussion) and Dockery (thumb/shoulder) returned to practice, while Moore (knee) and Mikell (ankle) worked on the side.
"They were shuffling around a little bit, so that was good to see," head coach Ron Rivera said. "We went from having just seven guys active to having to figure out how we can have the rest of them active.
"It's going to be an interesting week for us. It's kind of nice to have a whole bunch of guys around, so we'll see how it goes, and we'll make determinations when we get into Friday."
Thomas was the last player the Panthers held out hope for heading into the Giants game and is now the one most assured of returning. He had been cleared by team doctors but didn't get clearance from an independent doctor two days before the game.
But Thomas, a starter the first two weeks, was cleared during the bye week and will now go about working his way back into the lineup.
"I was very surprised, but at the same time, the doctors want to make sure it's safety first," Thomas said. "I'm just glad to be back out here this week, knowing that I feel good and the doctor feels good.
"Competition is ongoing. Nobody ever truly solidifies themselves in this league. I'm going to compete every day, and the coaches will base their decision on what they feel like is best. I will respect their decision. It's not about me. It's about the team and getting the 'W.' "
ROAD TO RECOVERY: Much to Rivera's delight, running back Jonathan Stewart (ankle) "opened it up" during his work on the side Monday, running closer to full speed than he has at any point this season.
"That was great to see," Rivera said. "The big thing is always how it feels the next day. We'll just continue to monitor that."
Stewart, who is on the physically unable to perform list, is eligible to return Week 7. Rivera said it's too early to tell if he'll be ready by then.
"Not sure," Rivera said. "I don't want to get ahead of myself."
Another running back – rookie Kenjon Barner (foot) – could make his regular season debut Sunday at the Arizona Cardinals.
Barner returned to practice last week and has made progress, but much like the case with Stewart, Rivera will wait to see how Barner's body responds to the increased workload.
"That's the thing about these injuries – it's always the day after," Rivera said. "It may look good, but they come in and it may swell up, it may ache or throb or something. Then we have to slow it down."
When he's ready to return, the Panthers plan to take advantage of Barner's diverse skill set.
"(The plan is) to use him," Rivera said. "He's got the ability to run the football, the ability to catch it and he's learning how to pass protect. We'll see. A lot of it has to do with the play calling and the flow.
"Every time you come in you can't be the guy that they are going to throw the ball to. He's got to be able to protect. He's got to be able to run. He's got to do the whole package."
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: When the Panthers next practice Wednesday, Rivera wants the team to return to the form it showed leading up to the Giants game.
"Practice today was good, but it wasn't good enough. I let them know that at the end," Rivera said. "There were some good things, and they were really focused and are talking about doing things the right way. But we've just got to make sure everybody is on the same page and everybody is pushing because we have the chance to build momentum off a victory."
Mitchell, who has taken on a bigger leadership role in light of Godfrey's injury, expects the team to respond.
"We've got to come out with the mentality Wednesday that we've got to win the day," he said. "That was Coach's message to us last week, that if you focus on winning today, eventually the game will take care of itself. We want to win every day going into the game and then just execute on Sunday."
Senior writer Bryan Strickland and staff writer Max Henson contributed to this report.