If you were at Carolina Panthers practice Sunday, you would have seen a lot more of linebacker Luke Kuechly and a lot less of cornerback Donte Jackson.
Coach Ron Rivera said not to make much of that; Kuechly was never seriously injured when he sat out most of the past three days of practice, and Jackson’s limited participation wasn’t an injury or a demotion.
Rather, it reinforced how wary the Panthers are this season of overworking starters early in the preseason.
The Panthers play their first preseason game Thursday in Chicago. Rivera said the coaches took some reps off Jackson to keep him fresh and to continue exploring other options in the secondary. There has probably been more experimentation in the defensive backfield than an any other position group at training camp. Particularly so at the nickel back position.
Corn Elder, who didn’t play a lot last season, was the primary beneficiary of Jackson’s semi-day off, lining up mostly with the first unit. But it also provided opportunity to cornerback Javien Elliott, who signed with the Panthers in June after three seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Elliott starred at practice Sunday, with an acrobatic interception of Kyle Allen and a fingertips pass-breakup of Cam Newton. Elliott was on the practice squad for much of his three seasons with the Bucs. In 36 games (seven starts), he had one interception (last season, returning it 50 yards).
Elliott is one of those options to fill the need at nickel.
“He’s a proven nickel in this league, and has some serious snaps. The more comfortable he gets with what we do and how we do it, the more his skill set will show,” said Rivera. “He really cut off a couple of routes. A big positive for him.”
Kuechly was out most of Wednesday’s practice after getting into a pileup, then had a day off Thursday, which Rivera said was scheduled. Kuechly participated in most team drills Sunday, which was in shells-and-shorts rather than full padding.
Kuechly has had a history of concussions; Rivera said there was no indication of concussion symptoms after Wednesday.
“This is an abundance of caution: He has never been in the (concussion) protocol or anything like that” this preseason, Rivera said. “We, as coaches, know this time is not as dire, to expose a guy to certain situations.
“We worked with him on installing (defensive schemes); he got a lot of install work today.”
No word on Newton vs. Bears
Newton threw Sunday, as he has at most practices of this camp. Rivera declined to say whether Newton would play Thursday against the Bears in Chicago.
Newton had off-season shoulder surgery after an injury severely limited his arm strength the second half of last season. The way the segments of training camp have broken up so far, Newton has typically thrown for two days in a row, then had a one-day break, either individually or as part of a team day off.
On Thursday, the Bears will be the first opponent to face a Panthers defense that plans to use a lot more 3-4 fronts this season. While the Panthers have been primarily a 4-3 defense under Rivera, he coached a lot of 3-4 when he was an assistant with the San Diego Chargers.
“I think back to my time in San Diego and the (defense) that we had, and I think we match up very well with those guys,” Rivera said. “But you never know, so I’m excited about the opportunity to play against another team. And then we’ll get a couple of days of really good work against Buffalo” in joint practices vs. the Bills in Spartanburg.
El Paso shooting
Quarterback Allen, who played college football in Texas at both Texas A&M and Houston, was asked about the mass shootings Saturday in El Paso and Dayton. He said he told his girlfriend how sad it is that the frequency of these tragedies have made society almost numb to them.
He said it felt particularly threatening that the shootings in El Paso happened in a Walmart, where so many parents and their children would be on a Saturday afternoon.
▪ Rookie running back Jordan Scarlett was held out of drills Sunday after suffering a minor injury at Fan Fest Friday.
▪ Undrafted rookie running back Elijah Holyfield would have had a sure touchdown, on a goal-line throw from Allen, but he started stretching for the end zone before securing the catch and bobbled it.
▪ Newton had some fun with the crowd who showed up for the 3 p.m. practice, shouting, “I know half y’all out here didn’t go to church today.”
▪ Rookie quarterback Will Grier makes a couple throws each practice that really show off his long-ball passing. Sunday he connected with wide receiver DeAndrew White on just such a big gain.