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Secondary holds it together


CHARLOTTE - In the days leading up to last Sunday's game at Houston, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said rookie cornerback Brandon Hogan would make his NFL debut on special teams and might even get a brief look in the secondary.

The plan, however, quickly changed when circumstances changed.

Several injuries during the course of the game pushed players like Hogan and cornerback R.J. Stanford into new roles, a scene that could repeat itself when the Panthers host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday in their home finale.

Cornerback Darius Butler was inactive last Sunday, still feeling the effects of a concussion suffered in Week 14, and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (hamstring) and safety Charles Godfrey (shoulder) suffered injuries during the game and didn't return.

Butler should play against Tampa Bay and may start in place of Munnerlyn, who hasn't practiced this week. Godfrey hasn't practiced either and could be replaced by Jordan Pugh, though Rivera said Thursday he remains hopeful that Godfrey might play.

"It was crazy, but we had prepared for it. We have prepared to play each other's positions, because you never know what can happen," said Pugh, who also got shaken up against the Texans but returned. "It's kind of the same thing this week. We'll be prepared."

If there is a silver lining to the stormy situation in the defensive backfield, it's the opportunity for the coaches to get a better idea of what some of the reserves can do heading into next season.

!Rivera said Stanford impressed with the versatility he showed, jumping in to help at safety. He also liked what he saw from Hogan, a fourth-round draft pick who spent the first nine weeks of the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list before finally being active last week.

"I was very pleased. It wasn't too big for him," Rivera said, highlighting a play in which a Houston touchdown was nullified because the receiver Hogan was covering stepped out of bounds before touching the ball. "One of the things he did that really showed his awareness was when he jammed the wide receiver and pushed him out of bounds to make him ineligible. He pointed right to the referee because he knew.

"He showed some football savvy, which is really good to see."

Hogan was encouraged by his debut as well and excited about possibly getting more action over the final two weeks.

"It felt good out there. It was a good day," Hogan said. "I knew my chance was coming with a couple of corners down, so I was ready to go when they gave me the call.

"I want to see where I'm at, to get a feel for things wherever the coaches use me. I'm looking forward to it. The speed of the game is just a little bit faster than college, but it's the same game."

Rivera remains confident in the ability of the secondary, a group being buoyed by the Pro Bowl type of season that veteran cornerback Chris Gamble is enjoying. At the same time, Rivera recognizes that some things need to be shored up.

"I like what we've gotten from the defensive backs," he said. "The big key seems to be not allowing big plays defensively; if we don't, we give ourselves a chance to win. That's been one of the bigger disappointments I've had - the amount of big plays we've given up that have cost us opportunities to win."

Some observers believe that the offseason should include an overhaul of a defense that ranks 23rd in the NFL. Rivera, however, is starting to see the true potential in the group and knows the capabilities of the defense will expand even more when the likes of linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis and defensive tackle Ron Edwards return from injuries that cost them the season.

"We finally have the continuity you'd like on the defensive line. We've had a couple of guys go down, obviously, but the guys that have been in their place have stepped up because they have a feel for what we're doing now," Rivera said. "With the linebackers, we've had a couple of guys step up and play very well, and if you couple that with who we're going to get back – Thomas and Jon – I think we can take the next steps there.

"And then with the maturation process of our two young safeties (Godfrey and Sherrod Martin) – terrific athletes that are learning on the run – it's been tough. The thing about safety is that there are so many intricacies to learn, especially with the package we have, so there's going to be a learning curve for those two guys in particular.

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