ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Fans hoped to see rookie linebacker Shaq Thompson's impressive return to practice from a hamstring injury translate over to his first NFL game, but the Panthers decided it was a little too soon to send their first-round draft choice into the fray.
"Shaq has made some really good strides and has come back really well," head coach Ron Rivera said after Thompson didn't play in Friday's 25-24 victory over the Buffalo Bills to open the preseason. "The doctors and (head athletic trainer) Ryan Vermillion felt that one more day of limited work would do him good. He warmed up, but we weren't going to expose him to anything extra.
"Our objective is to get him a couple of good days of practice against Miami (at training camp Wednesday and Thursday) and then play Friday night."
Rivera also decided against playing starting running back Jonathan Stewart, who isn't hurt but endured a couple of "really physical days" at practice.
"So the thought there," Rivera said, "was to not expose him anymore than we needed to."
NO END IN SIGHT… : With Charles Johnson, the one established starter at defensive end, not playing because of a calf injury, Rivera had high hopes that a defensive end seeking the starting spot across from him would stand out.
"I'm disappointed," Rivera said. "I was hoping for a little bit more and we didn't get it."
The task facing Mario Addison, Frank Alexander, Kony Ealy and Wes Horton was made more difficult with all the established defensive line starters – Johnson and tackles Star Lotulelei (foot) and Kawann Short (back) – out of action.
…UNTIL THE END: After the Panthers took the lead with 54 seconds left, the Bills entertained thoughts of getting into field goal range.
Defensive end Rakim Cox had other thoughts.
"Coach said it was on us, and I took it upon myself to make a play," Cox said. "I had to make up for a couple of mistakes I made early on. I put it behind me, and then I just tried to finish as strong as I could."
Cox, signed after impressing as an invited tryout at rookie minicamp in May, made an impact on each of the game's final four snaps. He sacked quarterback Matt Simms, then tripped up Simms from behind on a scramble, then pressured him into an incompletion, then forced him to heave the ball quicker than he would have liked. Rookie safety Dean Marlowe intercepted the pass near midfield.
"In our defensive room, the number one thing is getting off the ball. That's what we preach," Cox said. "I'd like to think I have the speed the get around the edge."
TONE-SETTING TIGHT END: The offense under third-string quarterback Joe Webb had struggled before the final drive, jumpstarted by back-to-back catches from converted tight end Marcus Lucas that covered 36 yards.
"We just had a bunch of guys out there eager to make plays," Lucas said. "Whenever you're down the depth chart as a three or four, your opportunities are limited. So we got out there before the drive, and we were just like, 'Let's make something happen, show that we deserve to be on the field.' That's what we did."
Lucas is still learning the positon, having moved over from wide receiver about two months ago, but he's already earned an endorsement from the team's Pro Bowl tight end.
"It's a tough transition. He hasn't had a ton of time, but I think he's doing a good job," Greg Olsen said. "He's a smart kid. He wants to do well, wants to do things the right way, and that's a big part of it."
FINDING THE RANGE: In addition to hitting a 47-yard field goal, kicker Graham Gano made both of his extra points – from the new distance of 33 yards rather than the old distance of 20.
"It's just different, and also when it's the first kick of the season, you have to get back in rhythm," Gano said. "I didn't hit the first one great, but I felt really good on the other one."
Gano doesn't expect to miss any PATs from the new distance and doesn't think there will be many misses around the league – at least not yet.
"I think it will be minimal, but you might see a difference later on in the season, mostly in cold-weather climates like Chicago," Gano said. "For the most part though, I don't think it's going to be a problem."