CHARLOTTE — Through the first four games of the season, the Panthers didn't have a more impactful defender than Frankie Luvu.
That's part of the reason he became something less than an every down player last week, because they'd like to be able to have that kind of impact all year long.
Luvu was listed as questionable on this week's injury report with a shoulder injury, and was limited in practice on both Wednesday and Friday. But he was also listed the same way last week, and returned after missing the previous two games.
"I felt good," Luvu said quietly, but with a smile. "Felt good coming back."
Luvu was effectively a full-time player in the first four games, playing 277 snaps, or 93.0 percent of the team total. That was more defensive snaps than he had played in any of the previous three seasons.
So when he came back against the Buccaneers last week, they kept him to just 44 snaps (66 percent of the team total), partially for his own good.
Interim coach Steve Wilks said early this week, "you've really got to help Frankie help himself," and said monitoring his reps was a combination of making sure he's healthy and pacing the hair-on-fire linebacker.
"Coming off the injury, we had a pitch count we wanted to give him during the game, and then we checked that, we communicated with him just to see how he felt, and he felt good, so we progressed moving forward," Wilks said. "It'll be the exact same thing this week. I don't want to have any setbacks or try to overload these guys coming off injury and all of a sudden lose them for three weeks.
"I think he understands the big picture. That's why I said we have to protect him from himself. Big picture-wise, we want him to be able to sustain and be able to play all year. He wants to play every down. That's just his makeup and his demeanor."
Of course, when Luvu has been on the field this year, he's made plenty of plays. In the first four games, he was responsible for defensive touchdowns in back-to-back weeks, forcing the fumble that Marquis Haynes Sr. returned for a touchdown against the Saints, and then returning a Kyler Murray interception for a touchdown against the Cardinals. Without him the following week, they allowed a season-high 37 against the 49ers, and faded late against the Rams.
While the Panthers caught a boost from PJ Walker and D'Onta Foreman last week in the win over the Buccaneers, it's still too soon to expect that kind of performance from their offense until they do it more consistently. So having Luvu on the field (and making high-impact plays) will be important in the weeks ahead.
Interim defensive coordinator Al Holcomb talked about the importance of keeping multiple linebackers ready (Shaq Thompson played every snap last week, and Cory Littleton and Damien Wilson spotted in as well, mixing and matching the other linebackers.
"Our linebacker room is a diverse group of guys, diverse group of players, and they all have specific skill sets," Holcomb said. "Frankie missed a couple of games, so it was just kind of working him in. At the same time, we have some quality players in there in Damien and Cory, Brandon Smith is coming along for us, so just having different packages and doing different things to accentuate each guy's ability and also spread out the rep count."
That's hard in a sense for Luvu, because he plays at the same speed he did when he was primarily just a special teams player and a spot pass-rusher. But after Haason Reddick left in free agency this offseason, he anticipated a bigger role this year anyway, and is trying to keep himself able to play it.
"With Haason leaving and that, I got my mind ready that I was going to have a lot on my plate this year," Luvu said. "From the beginning of OTAs and training camp, I knew the more I could do, the more I could help this team. The way everything played out, me playing a lot was something I've always had on my mind.
"It's just working in slowly now. Sticking with the plan and what they have for me. The guys like Cory and Shaq and Damien, they do a good job also, and they're vets. So if a man goes down, they haven't missed a beat."
And while they like that depth, they also know what Luvu can do when he's on the field. So the goal is to keep him out there as much as is good for him and them.