CHARLOTTE – In his first NFL start, his first start since his senior year at Southern California, Panthers right guard Jeff Byers refused to let his nerves or the Chicago Bears get the best of him.
Now Byers believes the best is yet to come, beginning with his second consecutive start Sunday at the Washington Redskins.
"I definitely had a lot of nerves, no question, but that's because I really care about it and want to perform well for my team and myself," Byers said. "It's a dream come true, because everybody in this locker room and a lot of people who aren't in this locker room dream of starting in the NFL. I've gotten blessed with an opportunity to do so."
Byers got his shot after former college teammate Ryan Kalil went down to a season-ending foot injury. The Panthers moved Geoff Hangartner from right guard to center and put Byers in Hangartner's spot last week after previously trying Garry Williams and Byron Bell.
"It went well, but there's definitely a lot of room for improvement. I've just got to continue taking advantage of the opportunity by trusting my ability and playing hard."
Byers' last start outside of the preseason had been the 2009 Emerald Bowl, but he said he was comfortable thanks to his coaches. Byers is listed at center but has experience at both guard spots.
"Coach (John) Matsko and Coach (Ray) Brown do a great job. If you're a swing guy, every day you go from right guard to center to left guard so that you're comfortable at every one," Byers said. "I feel real good at right guard right now. Obviously I've been playing a lot of it the past two weeks, and the more you play, the more you get comfortable with it."
THREE TIGHTS: Greg Olsen was the only Panthers tight end with a reception this season before both Gary Barnidge and Ben Hartsock caught a pass against the Bears.
It had been a long time coming for both.
Barnidge's reception was his first since 2009. He didn't have any catches despite playing in all 16 games in 2010, and he missed all 16 games in 2011 with leg and ankle injuries.
"We're not worried about individual stats. It's all about the team and getting victories," Barnidge said. "It's great to get all of us involved, because I think our tight ends are mismatches for a lot of teams."
Hartsock's catch – a 25-yarder - was his first since joining the Panthers prior to the 2011 season and just his 30th in 109 games.
"What was more surprising was that I actually got around the corner and up the sideline," Hartsock said. "It's one of those things that gives everybody on the sideline a little bit of a boost to see a guy that doesn't get a chance very often get a chance. It was fun."
All but five of Hartsock's receptions have come from top-five draft picks: No. 1 picks Peyton Manning and now Cam Newton, No. 3 picks Vince Young and Matt Ryan and No. 5 pick Mark Sanchez.
His first unofficial catch, as a rookie in 2004, set the tone.
"We were playing the Packers. I was standing on the sideline, and Brett Favre threw one into our sideline, and I caught it," Hartsock said. "I was setting an example for only catching from future Hall of Famers."
FIRST ON FIRST: In regards to first down production, Sunday's matchup at FedEx Field features a matchup of No. 1 versus No. 2.
The Panthers' mark of 6.69 yards per play on first down leads the league. The Redskins are right behind, averaging 6.52 yards on first down.
The Panthers' five biggest gains this season - Louis Murphy's 51-yard catch in Week 1, Steve Smith's 66-yard catch in Week 2, Cam Newton's 40-yard run in Week 2, Brandon LaFell's 62-yard catch in Week 8 and Smith's 37-yard catch in Week 8 - have all come on first down.
But Washington has parlayed its success on first down into more points. The Redskins rank seventh in scoring, averaging 26.6 points per game, while the Panthers rank 26th with 18.3 points per game.
IMPROVING RUN D: The Panthers' run defense is trending up.
Carolina has kept opponents under 100 yards rushing in each of its last three games. Seattle ran for 98, Dallas 85 and Chicago 79.
Tackling has significantly improved across the defense, and Rivera said the unit is benefiting from improved individual performances at each level.
"Part of (the improvement) is just the maturation of our unit," Rivera said. "We got (defensive tackle) Ron Edwards back, and he's a space eater. Here's a guy that commands a double team and holds a double team up, because if they let him go we've got that big body forcing the ball to cutback or stay frontside. Dwan Edwards has emerged as our three-technique, and that's helped us an awful lot.
"(Defensive ends) Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy anchoring and setting edges for us has been great, and having our linebackers able to run is huge."
Strong safety Charles Godfrey also has emerged as a key figure in run support.
"Another guy that's played extremely well is Charles Godfrey, looking at him and the way he's inserted himself (against) the run," Rivera said. "He's establishing himself as a really good box player. He has played really well helping to solidify our run defense."
INJURY UPDATE: Hangartner (knee) was added to the injury report on Thursday, but Rivera said the veteran was just getting a day off.
"He was a little sore," Rivera said. "He's a smart football player, so missing these reps won't hurt him."
Linebacker Thomas Davis (knee) was given a day off Wednesday but returned as a full participant Thursday.
"Thomas looked fresh," Rivera said. "A day off does wonders. He looked good."
Defensive end Frank Alexander, who did not participate for the second consecutive day, had an MRI on his knee that revealed a bone bruise, but Rivera expects him to return to practice on Friday.
"It's just a matter of getting through the discomfort," Rivera said.
Wide receiver Brandon LaFell (head), defensive tackle Dwan Edwards (ankle), defensive end Antwan Applewhite (hamstring) and defensive end Thomas Keiser (elbow) also did not participate.
Rivera said Edwards remains the biggest injury concern with his sprained ankle.
NO TRADE ZONE: The NFL's trade deadline came and went quietly for the Panthers on Thursday. It was much the same around the league, where just one trade was made.
"It seems to be the nature of the league right now," Rivera said. "That's why I was surprised so much was made of it, because typically if it's going to happen, it's going to happen at the beginning of the week anyway."
The trade deadline was moved back from Tuesday because of the impact of Hurricane Sandy along the East Coast, but it made no notable difference. The Panthers have made just one trade between the season opener and the trade deadline in franchise history.
Senior writer Bryan Strickland and staff writer Max Henson contributed to this report.