The Panthers aren’t interested in moving Luke Kuechly to the middle.
Even if Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jon Beason can’t play Sunday against Atlanta, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Kuechly will stay on the outside.
Kuechly set NCAA tackling records as a middle linebacker at Boston College, but he’s settled in at the weakside spot after the Panthers drafted him No. 9 overall last spring.
“The one thing we want to be careful of is moving Luke too soon,” Rivera said Thursday. “Luke could probably play some (middle linebacker) for us. He’ll do it in the sub-package, with Jon not playing. And who knows, if this is extended, maybe we will consider doing that.”
Jason Phillips, who started all four preseason games while Beason was sidelined, will get the call against the Falcons if Beason can’t go.
The Panthers have not ruled Beason out. But the three-time, Pro Bowler has yet to practice this week as he nurses shoulder and knee injuries.
“The shoulder and knee obviously are concerns. And the one thing we need to be careful of is getting him back out there and he tries to play through it again and does more damage,” Rivera said. “That’s probably why we’re being overly cautious right now.”
Kuechly is the Panthers’ leading-tackler with 26 stops, behind strongside linebacker James Anderson (33) and Beason (30). Kuechly’s aggressiveness left him out of position Week 1 against Tampa Bay, but Rivera said he’s improving.
“I think it’s just a matter of time before he establishes himself as a solid performer,” Rivera said.
IT’S OFFICIAL: Rivera bit his tongue throughout the league’s lockout of its officials, and he was similarly understated when asked about the new, 8-year deal that allowed the regular refs to begin working games this week.
“It’s good to have the NFL whole again,” Rivera said.
Rivera said he felt for the coaches who had games decided on controversial calls by the replacement refs.
“There will be mistakes. And there will be good things. Some will go in your favor, some will go against,” Rivera added. “You’ve just got to try to maintain (control). This is an emotional game. We all want to win. We just have to handle the situation and circumstances.”
INJURY REPORT: Rivera said he felt good about running Jonathan Stewart’s chances of playing against the Falcons. Stewart has practiced on a limited basis this week after missing the Giants’ game on Sept. 20 with a toe injury.
Rivera said defensive end Antwan Applewhite (lacerated knee) and offensive lineman Mike Pollak (shoulder) likely are out this week. Defensive end Greg Hardy practiced for the first time Thursday since breaking his thumb covering a punt against the Giants.
Rivera said Hardy participated in every drill except the team period.
GUARDING GONZALEZ: Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, 36, said in July he’s “95 percent” sure he’s retiring after this season, although he has not slowed down. Gonzalez, second behind Jerry Rice on the NFL’s all-time receptions list, leads the Falcons with 21 catches for 214 yards and three touchdowns.
“Tony Gonzalez keeps saying he’s going to retire,” Rivera said. “The sooner the better.”
Anderson said Gonzalez is a tough matchup for any linebacker or safety.
“He’s a wily vet. He knows to (sit down in) a zone. He knows how to play off the leverage in man coverage. He knows how to use his body to create creases for the quarterback to throw,” Anderson said. “That makes him a hard guy to check. Sometimes you’ve just got to make a play.”
CHECK THE TAPE: Panthers center Ryan Kalil said his father is among the paid subscribers to NFL.com’s new Game Rewind feature, which allows fans to watch the same game videos the teams do.
Frank Kalil, who was drafted by the Buffalo Bills and played two seasons in the USFL, likes to share a few pointers after watching the tape.
“He calls me up. I’m like, ‘I don’t want to hear it. Don’t,’” Kalil said.
Ryan Kalil has watched Vikings’ video this year to keep up with his younger brother, Matt, a rookie offensive tackle and the No. 4 pick in the April draft.
“I don’t get to see him otherwise,” Kalil said. “Otherwise, I just have to check the SportsCenter app and see what their score is.”