Extra practice makes perfect

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Sunday's practice was a little bit like a Sunday drive relative to the previous few days, but it didn't exactly end with a nap in the rocking chair.

After the final horn sounded on a practice that propelled the players into a well-deserved day off, quarterback Cam Newton and several receivers got in some extra work near the goal line before seeking shelter from the heat.

Head coach Ron Rivera said the impromptu pitch-and-catch session was more than a product of Newton making up for lost time following offseason ankle surgery.

"It's also a product of him trying to be a leader," Rivera said. "It's him saying, 'Hey guys, let's work on this. Let's get better at these things.' "

Newton and his receivers certainly showed improvement during a team period early in practice, when Newton connected on five consecutive passes to five different receivers. The streak was capped by a beautiful connection with rookie Kelvin Benjamin deep down the sideline.

The defense had its moments, too, with linebacker Luke Kuechly leaping to break up a Newton pass into the middle of the end zone. The next play, however, Newton threaded one to new weapon Jerricho Cotchery in the back of the end zone.

"I'm pleased with him," Rivera said. "He's working his way in, and you can see he's really starting to develop the rapport with his receivers. He and Kelvin have hit it off very quickly, and he and Greg (Olsen) have picked up right where they left off.

"(Brenton) Bersin is somebody that's really showing, and you see Jerricho and Jason (Avant) doing the things you're looking for. Philly Brown is stepping up, and Tiquan (Underwood) and Tavarres (King) have made some plays. There's a whole group of guys that he's developing rapport with."

By design, Sunday's practice was a little more low-key heading the day off. The timing made sense given the particularly physical nature of the previous day, and it was also good timing because 14 players did not participate because of mostly minor injuries.

"Today was a little bit of a different day, a big-time tone down," Rivera said. "We had six straight practices in pads. We had a very physical day yesterday.

"The nice thing is that the break is coming at a nice time. They'll get a chance to rest up tomorrow, get off their feet and get themselves a little bit of a break before coming back and getting themselves ready for our preseason opener."

When the Panthers begin the preseason Friday night at home against the Buffalo Bills, several of the players who sat out Sunday could be in action. Rivera was asked specifically about the prospects of bookend defensive ends Charles Johnson (hamstring) and Greg Hardy (shoulder) playing.

"Yes, that's the expectation," Rivera said. "We'll see how they are come Tuesday. We had them on the sideline today and have tomorrow off, so we expect to see them out at practice Tuesday."

Rivera said that running back Jonathan Stewart, who is yet to practice with a hamstring injury, is making noticeable progress. Stewart ran on the side the last two days.

"He responded well. It's all promising," Rivera said. "The idea is to see how he is Tuesday after the day off, and then we'll decide from there when he's going to be back on the field."

While the players will enjoy a day off before hitting the practice fields again Tuesday at 3:10 p.m., the coaching staff won't – though their work day Monday might feel like a Sunday drive relatively speaking.

"We'll work. We look at tape. We prep for the next practice," Rivera said. "You've got a lot more time. It's crazy compared to what it used to be like for the coaches. You never really had a chance to take a breath – just one after the other after the other. Now you get to take a little break and then go right back to it."

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