Shaq Thompson "brings a whole different demeanor"

Shaq Thompson

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers clearly haven't been the same defense lately.

But in the last couple of days of practice, it hasn't taken long to realize what's been missing.

The hope is that Shaq Thompson will be able to return to the middle of the defense this week, after missing the previous three games with a foot injury. He wasn't ready to commit to a return yet, but you can tell he's getting closer by his upbeat demeanor.

"Physically, I'm feeling good. Mentally, I'm feeling great," Thompson said with a grin Thursday. "I'm just happy to be back out there with my brothers, happy to run around with them, and bringing the energy."

That has been missed over the last three weeks, as a defense that was ranked first in the league before he was injured in Dallas has taken some hits. While Thompson alone won't fix all the problems, his teammates know he's going to help.

Shaq Thompson

"Shaq brings a whole different demeanor to the defense," safety Jeremy Chinn said. "His leadership out there, his command, him flying around definitely elevates everyone around him."

Thompson admitted it was difficult watching what was happening without him. He traveled to New York and participated in pre-game warmups, and has been a fixture in meetings throughout his absence. There were initially some hopes he could play in two weeks, which is why they didn't put him on IR, but ultimately they decided to hold him until this week. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow said that even if Thompson played, it would likely be in a somewhat limited package.

But being on the practice field has obviously lifted Thompson's spirits.

"I'm just happy being back out there working with my brothers," he said. "It's been a rough three weeks for me not being out there with them, and it's rough when you go through meetings and everything and find out you're not playing. You do all this preparation. But I did it to help them and to keep my mind just in football mode."

Asked if he learned anything in the last three weeks, he replied: "Don't take this sport for granted; it can go like that. That's the biggest thing. Just missing your brothers. I miss playing with them."

The 27-year-old said he thought the artificial turf in Dallas contributed to his injury, but he also took some blame for his choice in footgear. He said he was wearing the wrong insoles in his shoes, "and that's on me."

When he planted and cut, he could tell there was a problem, and though he continued in that game, he wasn't himself. That's why he was hesitant to declare himself fully back, since he's only done "a little" of the kind of lateral movement and breaking and cutting that he does normally.

Snow already knew that not having Thompson around was a hindrance, but the point was driven home by pre-game conversations with Giants coaches about the veteran linebacker.

"I was talking to the Giants coaches, and they thought Shaq was really playing well, was physical, really a presence inside," Snow said. "He knows the system now, he's 237 pounds, much bigger than he was a year ago, and he's playing that way, and he's still playing fast. And his leadership.

"You miss Shaq in matchups, especially on third down. There's a lot of things Shaq does for us on the football field. It's good to have him back."

Snow said Thompson's communication on the field (as the team's on-field play-caller) had been missed. Snow said there was a play against the Giants in which they didn't make a check based on formation, the kind of thing Thompson would have recognized.

"He really brings that to the table," Snow said. "And we miss Shaq; it'll be good to have him back."

While the recent weeks and late scoring drives by opponents have been hard to watch at times, Thompson made it clear that being out of the mix was hard for him.

"The thing I did learn was not to get hurt. That's the biggest thing. Because I love playing football, love playing for my brothers, love playing for this team," he said. "It sucks that I got hurt, but I believe in them boys, and I feel like for the most part they've played hard. We had some minor things get away, slip away from us, but we'll be back this week."

And if he's back, it will certainly help.

View photos from Thursday's practice as the Panthers get ready to face the Falcons on Sunday.

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