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The Day After: Greg Little gaining confidence with strong play

Greg Little

CHARLOTTE — During a practice last week, the Panthers ran the throwback screen to wide receiver Robby Anderson that eventually would go for 24 yards on the left side during the first quarter of Sunday's win over the Cardinals.

In that rep in practice, left tackle Greg Little had a chance for a clean shot on cornerback Troy Pride Jr. But that's his teammate, so Little didn't take it.

But on Sunday …

"When I saw the same look on the field, I was like, 'Oh man, I've gotta kill him,'" Little said with a laugh.

Little put Cardinals safety Deionte Thompson on his back. Head coach Matt Rhule called it a great block. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater noted it showed how Little is gaining confidence.

"He had a nice little flex on the screen pass," Bridgewater said.

Little has started Carolina's past two games at left tackle, as Russell Okung deals with a groin injury. Little has rotated with Trent Scott at the position in both contests. But after Scott took the majority of snaps against the Chargers, Little played 61 percent of the time against the Cardinals.

Rhule liked what he saw.

"His team needed him, and he stepped up and played well," Rhule said Monday. "Is he perfect? No. Does he have to improve on things? Yes. But he's way better this week than he was last week."

And the credit for that improvement, according to Little, goes to coaches and Okung.

"He and (offensive line coach Pat) Meyer have really helped me with my hands," Little said. "That's one thing I feel like I've gotten better at, and I needed to get better at. They've been a big help, supporting me the whole time."

A 2019 second-round pick, Little started three games as a rookie but battled through injuries most of the season. He was placed on injured reserve in December.

But Rhule has consistently praised Little since the start of training camp, highlighting his progress throughout. Now Little has displayed that in the last two weeks against some of the league's best pass rushers in Los Angeles' Joey Bosa and Arizona's Chandler Jones.

"It was kinda funny, seeing Chandler Jones line across the ball and hearing I had a one-on-one call, I was like, 'OK, that means they have a lot of confidence in me to get the job done, so I can't let them down,'" Little said.

Though Bosa had a sack against the Panthers, he recorded it when Little wasn't in the game. Carolina shut out Jones on Sunday, and he had only one quarterback hit.

"The last two weeks, we're talking about some All-Pro, all-NFL, Pro Bowl type-players, and Greg was really, really good," Rhule said.

As for Okung, Rhule said the 32-year-old starter is close to returning.

"If we didn't have so much confidence in Greg, (Okung) probably would've pushed himself to go," Rhule said. "But that's one of those injuries that if it's not 100 percent and he re-injures it, it could be a couple weeks."

If there's a silver lining, the Panthers have now created some depth along the line by getting Little and Scott experience. That's valuable for every offensive line, as it's a group with a high injury rate.

"We're a much deeper football team than we were a couple weeks ago," Rhule said.

CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY UPDATE

Christian McCaffrey will be out for at least another week as he recovers from his high ankle sprain, but Rhule's outlook was optimistic when asked about his star player on Monday.

"Christian's attacking rehab every day," Rhule said. "It was good to have him on the sideline yesterday. He's much more than just a player, he's a key component to the team. So to have him with us was awesome."

McCaffrey's initial diagnosis was that he would miss four-to-six weeks with the injury. But he's eligible to come off injured reserve after three games, with the third being this weekend's trip to Atlanta.

Carolina has used Mike Davis and Reggie Bonnafon at running back in McCaffrey's absence, and both have performed admirably. Davis had 16 carries for 84 yards and a touchdown along with five receptions for 27 yards on Sunday. Bonnafon added 10 rushes for 53 yards, plus a pair of catches for 18 yards and a touchdown.

"Those two guys have stepped up and played really well for us when we've needed it," Rhule said. "I thought to come away from the game with 168 yards rushing, Teddy doing his part to run the football, that was a team effort."

There's no doubt the Panthers miss McCaffrey and his production. But Davis and Bonnafon's performances mean Carolina won't need to rush McCaffrey back before he's ready.

THE SUBSTITUTION RULE

At a couple of points in Sunday's game, the Cardinals' offense got to the line of scrimmage ready to snap, but then an official stood over the ball to stop play. Arizona had substituted personnel. When that happens, the defense always gets an opportunity to change who's on the field, too.

But there was a bit of gamesmanship involved.

Before a first-and-goal play midway through the second quarter, the Cardinals substituted late in the play clock. While quarterback Kyler Murray and the offense got lined up, an official ran in with about 11 seconds left to prevent the ball from being snapped so Carolina could put in its player. Defensive tackle Zach Kerr jogged in from the Panthers' sideline, and by the time he got to the line of scrimmage, the play clock was almost at zero. Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury had to call a timeout.

"That's from being in college where everyone's 'tempo' all the time," Rhule said. "When I yelled for Zach Kerr to go get in the game and get 'KK' (Kawann Short) or Derrick Brown out, he did it and did a great job."

Kerr didn't enter the field in a hurry to get set, but he didn't have to. It's incumbent on the offense to give both sides enough time to substitute before the play clock expires. But there's a practical reason for that, too.

"For Zach, we would never want our guys to sprint on the field and play a snap. That wouldn't be safe," Rhule said. "If you're having to run off the field because you're up against the clock, then we'd want you to run off the field. But running on the field — we would never sub if there wasn't time. We don't want guys running out there being gassed and having to play."

Short said the situation wasn't necessarily something the Panthers practiced, but they're well aware of the rules.

"When you sub, the other team has a chance to sub. That's what it was," Short said. "We took our time."

View the best photos from behind the scenes of Carolina's 31-21 win over Arizona on Sunday.

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