CHARLOTTE – The portion of the Panthers' running game that features quarterback Cam Newton came back strong in Week 6, but only time will tell if the Panthers' prominent running backs will return for Week 7.
Head coach Ron Rivera said Monday that it will likely still be "a couple of more" weeks before DeAngelo Williams returns to action, but he's hopeful that Jonathan Stewart will be able to play this week at Green Bay.
Williams (ankle) was listed as out on the injury report before Sunday's 37-37 tie at Cincinnati and missed his second consecutive game. Stewart (knee) was questionable but didn't show enough in pregame warmups to avoid missing a third consecutive game.
"We're supposed to have Jonathan back on Wednesday," Rivera said. "We'll see. He's going to work out Monday and Tuesday, and if things go well, we'll see him out there Wednesday. If not, we'll have to wait."
Fozzy Whittaker (quad) played for the first time since Week 2 and got his first carries of the season against the Bengals. He ran well but not for big numbers, rushing nine times for 25 yards and one touchdown while catching two passes for 27 yards before the quad started bothering him again.
Whittaker and rookie Darrin Reaves combined for 40 yards on 17 carries, dwarfed by Newton's dynamic day. After totaling 42 yards on 14 attempts while slowly making his way back from multiple injuries through his first four games, Newton rushed for 107 yards on 17 carries against Cincinnati.
"It was him building to this point and trying to put himself in position to do what he does," Rivera said. "I'm not going to say he's 100 percent healthy, but he's a lot healthier than he was at the beginning of the year. He's a lot more comfortable and confident in himself, and because of that it allowed us to open up our game plan."
While the Bengals had difficulty stopping Newton, the Panthers defense struggled to slow Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton. That's a concern with Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers up next, and Rivera isn't sure if some key components in the secondary will be available.
Rivera compared the injury that kept nickel corner Bene Benwikere out against the Bengals to a somewhat tamer version of Williams' injury. Though Benwikere said last week he's hoping it will be a one-week injury, Rivera said Monday it's "probably doubtful" that Benwikere will be back for the Packers game.
There's more hope for starting cornerback Josh Norman (concussion).
"We'll see," Rivera said. "He'll visit with the doctors tomorrow, and from that point we'll find out if he's ready to start practicing."
The defense continues to deal with the absence of defensive end Greg Hardy, who played in Week 1 but has since been on the NFL's exempt list until his legal matter is resolved. Rivera said Hardy has been in contact but hasn't been at Bank of America Stadium and will return "at the appropriate time."
The Panthers have had to move on from Hardy's absence, but Rivera wants his defense to take steps forward in his stead.
"It would be asinine for me to sit up here and say that his loss has no impact, but at the same time it is a next-man-up mentality," Rivera said. "We can exonerate everyone by just saying that's the reason why, but that's not the reason why. … It would be easy to just say that, but I'm not going to, because you'd be letting people off the hook, me included.
"The fact is these guys are professionals, and they need to play and play well. To give ourselves a chance to win football games we've got to play better."