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Panthers brace for final preseason evaluation


CHARLOTTE – The fourth preseason games allows players battling for roster spots one last chance to make a positive impression.

That will be the goal against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday.

But the Panthers' coaching staff and front office have been forming their player evaluations for months now. Head coach Ron Rivera made it clear that he and his staff will take a comprehensive approach to finalizing their 53-man roster.

"We can't get caught up in the moment," Rivera said. "It really has to be the whole body of work -- what we've done staring with OTAs, to minicamp, through training camp and to the last preseason game."

Rivera added that there are "probably a dozen" spots still undecided.

WINNING LESSONS: Down to the wire finishes in back to back exhibitions increased the stress level on the sideline, but those moments served as valuable learning experiences.

And according to Rivera, earning victories against the Dolphins and Jets in that fashion breeds confidence.

"Without a doubt," Rivera said. "You look at how we won those last two, it came down to the last play of the game, with the defense on the field. That's exciting.

"We had a chance to win the game both times, and both times the defense stepped up. That helps. It makes a strong statement for what we can be as a defense."

KUECHLY'S SELF EVALUATION: Rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly has wowed coaches, teammates and fans with his play thus far, and he's enjoyed his first NFL outings.

"It's been fun. The preseason, for me, has been back to football," Kuechly said. "You haven't played football for a while and just getting into a game situation against another team is exciting. The regular season will be that much better."

Kuechly also hopes to be that much better once the regular season rolls around as he continues to adjust to the tempo of professional football.

"It's been a process. The first game I didn't do as well as I wanted to. I've done some good things in games and other things not quite as good as I need to," he said. "I guess it has surprised me with how fast it comes. In and the out of the huddle and everything is just faster in general. I knew it was going to be fast, but (the speed of the game) did surprise me a little bit."

CLEARING THE INJURY-HURDLE: A return to the field doesn't necessarily mean a return to form for players coming back from injury.

The mental hurdles can be difficult to overcome, and Rivera said the success rate varies.

"Some of the guys you can still see the (injury) linger a little bit," Rivera explained. "Other guys have been able to bounce back. Thomas (Davis) is one of those guys that I think right now with a little bit of confidence, has bounced back. Ron Edwards is another guy (who has bounced back)."

The key for Davis in Rivera's estimation? A big play.

"You've got find something that signifies, hey, you're back," Rivera said. "For Thomas, I think it was just how he played. He comes up and very first play he's involved. He gets a sack and all of the sudden he's bouncing around, he's moving, he's confident. At that point, you no longer worry about him and he no longer worries about himself."

Edwards suffered a knee injury in training camp that caused some worry initially, but overcoming that minor scare allowed him to play without hesitation.

"He tweaked his knee and his first expression was, 'Did I do something bad?' Once he realized he was okay," Rivera said, "he's been solid."

"Some guys it comes quicker, some guys it doesn't come at all," Rivera added. "For (Davis and Edwards) it seems to have come."

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