Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart suffered a tear of his medial collateral ligament in Sunday night’s 31-13 loss to New Orleans and is expected to miss at least two weeks.
Coach Ron Rivera, who occasionally jokes about how optimistic he is about his players’ injuries, said Monday afternoon the best-case scenario for Stewart would be a return in Week 17 in the regular-season finale at Atlanta as the Panthers prepare for what they hope will be a playoff run.
“It wasn’t the ACL,” Rivera said. “That much I know, which is huge. I’m very happy for Jonathan that there is a bit of good news. We’ll see how he is, and we’re going to reevaluate him in 10 days.”
The injury occurred when Keenan Lewis hit Stewart’s right knee after the back had picked up 16 yards on a short pass from Cam Newton.
Stewart stayed on the ground briefly before gingerly jogging across the field to the sideline. He went to the locker room later in the quarter and came back to the sideline with his right leg wrapped.
Stewart sat out the first seven games of the season while on the physically unable to perform list after offseason ankle surgery. He suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 12 against Philadelphia last year and did not play again.
“Unfortunately, we’ve been used to not having him a little bit this year, so we can survive without him,” left tackle Jordan Gross said. “But depth in the backfield is a very nice thing to have late in the year. Sounds like he’s just going to be rehabbing and we’ll get him when we can. But definitely not good news.”
In six games this year, Stewart has 48 carries for 180 yards and no touchdowns. He also caught seven passes for 44 yards.
Since the Panthers signed Stewart to a five-year, $36.5 million contract extension before the 2012 season, the sixth-year running back has played in 15 games. In those games, he has 141 carries for 516 yards (3.6 yards per carry) and one rushing touchdown.
He entered the 2012 season averaging 875 yards per season on 181 carries, an average of 4.8 yards per carry.
Starting running back DeAngelo Williams will see more carries in Stewart’s absence. He leads the Panthers with 662 yards on 164 carries, an average of 4.0 yards per carry.
Williams led the team in rushing Sunday night with 52 yards on 13 carries. It was the first time since Week 10 that someone other than Newton led the team in rushing yards.
“I thought he ran well,” said Rivera, whose team was down 21-6 at halftime. “I wish we could have kept control of that game going into the half, and I think we could have probably done some things differently in the second half and given him a few more opportunities.”
Rivera also indicated rookie running back Kenjon Barner would be active for Sunday’s game against the Jets.
Stewart’s injury hits on a growing, league-wide conversation about defenders targeting ball carriers’ lower bodies. NFL safety rules have forced officials to penalize – while the league fines – defenders who hit players near the head and neck area.
“My big wonder is, is that a big trend in the league now? Is the concern about the hits to the head such a big thing that targets are being lowered?” Rivera asked. “That’s something that’s probably going to have to be looked at as far as the league is concerned and see what we can do to help protect these guys.”
Staff writer Joseph Person contributed.
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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