CHARLOTTE – Running back Jonathan Stewart took a big step Friday toward returning to game action, but head coach Ron Rivera said the Panthers would take a step back before deciding if Stewart is ready to return.
"This was by far his best day the last couple of weeks," Rivera said. "He took the reps he was supposed to, running the ball, catching the ball, blocking, stepping up into the mix.
"He's a lot closer, but we'll see how he is tomorrow. Then Sunday we'll get to the stadium nice and early."
Stewart is questionable and will be a game-time decision for Sunday's game at the Cincinnati Bengals. He was doubtful last week, when he missed his second consecutive game since suffering an ankle injury in Week 3 versus the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"We're in a good situation, a good set of circumstances, so we don't have to push anything and be careless," said Rivera, whose Panthers (3-2) sit atop the NFC South standings. "It's a long season, so we have to be smart.
"If he's healthy and he's up, he's our runner. That's the way it is. If not, it will be that mix of guys just like last week."
The mix won't include DeAngelo Williams, who is again out with an ankle injury. Darrin Reaves and Chris Ogbonnaya, who carried the load last week, will play, along with Fozzy Whittaker, who was active but didn't play last week.
In addition to Williams, cornerbacks Josh Norman (concussion) and Bene Benwikere (ankle) are out. Melvin White will return to the lineup for Norman alongside Antoine Cason, while Charles Godfrey will take over at nickel in place of Benwikere. Rivera said rookie safety Tre Boston, a fourth-round pick from North Carolina, will be active for the first time.
Defensive end Charles Johnson and tight end Greg Olsen practiced on a limited basis Friday and are questionable, though Rivera said he feels good about the pair's prospects of playing.
Regardless of Olsen's playing status, Rivera said reserve tight ends Ed Dickson and Brandon Williams could be in line for larger roles going forward, especially with Richie Brockel (ankle) now on injured reserve.
"One of the things we've wanted to do was become a 12 (one running back, two tight ends) team again, and Ed fits that role," Rivera said. "Ed is learning that role, and as he continues to grow in that role, we will see Ed's role grow.
"The other one now with Richie (Brockel) down that has had to take on a bigger role has been Brandon Williams, who had a very good training camp and a good preseason. I can envision him being involved a little bit more. His role could expand."
Six Panthers that missed practice at some point during the week, including linebacker Thomas Davis and left tackle Byron Bell, are probable.