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Notes: Hangartner healing, Stewart slowed


CHARLOTTE – Center Geoff Hangartner (foot) took a step forward in his recovery Thursday, but running back Jonathan Stewart (ankle) took a step back.

Neither participated in practice, but Hangartner got some work in on the side.

"(Geoff) moved around, shuffled around. That was big progress. Pretty excited about that," head coach Ron Rivera said.

Rivera said Stewart suffered a setback and there is "a little bit more concern there" in terms of his availability for Sunday's season finale at New Orleans.

The only other player to miss practice was defensive end Greg Hardy, who was absent due to a family issue but should be back with the team Friday.

RECOUNT? Hardy, fellow defensive end Charles Johnson and linebacker Luke Kuechly topped the list of Carolina defensive players under consideration for the Pro Bowl, but no Panthers were selected in results released Wednesday.

"We've got several players on defense that are worthy of recognition," Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "I believe the future is bright."

Both Hardy and Johnson rank in the top five in sacks among NFC defensive ends – a fact that's obviously good for the Panthers but could have made it difficult for them to separate themselves from a voting perspective.

The team's slow start to the season didn't help the cause either.

"I'm disappointed for those guys, but in light of our situation earlier in the year, that's probably part of it," Rivera said. "With Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, honestly they could have taken votes from each other. It's a great tandem and a tribute to who they are as football players and how unselfish they play."


DOME SWEET DOME: Johnson, who has 31 sacks since becoming a full-time starter in 2010, is looking forward to playing at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after sitting out last year's finale there with a back injury.

"I'm very anxious to play down there. It's a good atmosphere with good fans," Johnson said. "And I just feel so much faster in the dome. Plus, you don't have to worry about the weather."

Within the NFC South, Johnson has 5.5 sacks in his last three games against the Falcons at the Georgia Dome, compared to one sack over the same time period against the Buccaneers at open-air Raymond James Stadium. Johnson had one sack in his lone starting assignment at the Saints back in 2010.

DEFENSE BUILDING: In a conference call with Carolina media Wednesday, Saints interim head coach Joe Vitt said the Panthers boast "probably the most improved defense in the National Football League."

The Panthers' defense, which has allowed one touchdown in the last two games, ranks eighth in the league and has been playing at its highest level late in the season.

"The foundation is being laid," McDermott said. "I'm extremely proud of the work ethic, extremely proud of the results to this point. We are a work in progress, make no mistake about it. I'm happy with where we are but not satisfied."

The Saints, who rank third in the NFL in total offense, will provide arguably the toughest test Carolina's defense has faced all season.

"They are on a roll right now," McDermott said. "They're one of the best, if not the best offense in the league. And going down there, playing at their place, they are even more dangerous."

Staff writer Max Henson and senior writer Bryan Strickland contributed to this report.

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