Carolina Panthers

For Carolina Panthers, some starters sit, while others should have

Carolina Panthers running back Cameron Artis-Payne, left, breaks to the outside in the first quarter against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, on Thursday.
Carolina Panthers running back Cameron Artis-Payne, left, breaks to the outside in the first quarter against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, on Thursday.

Quarterback Cam Newton wore red cleats and a knit cap.

Linebacker Luke Kuechly had on sneakers.

And a bunch of the Carolina Panthers’ other starters were chilling on the sideline Thursday at Heinz Field for the final exhibition.

Starting cornerback Josh Norman would soon join them after leaving with a head injury after the Steelers’ second offensive play.

Norman then walked to the locker room with a member of the Panthers’ medical team. His night was over and his availability for the season opener at Jacksonville next weekend was suddenly in question.

The Panthers said after their 23-6 win that Norman is in the concussion protocol. The severity of his injury and how quickly he recovers and passes the various tests will determine whether he’s on the field Sept. 13 against the Jaguars.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said little about Norman’s condition, repeating his familiar refrain that he doesn’t ask the training staff for injury updates before meeting with the media.

Norman was gone from the locker room when it opened to the media after the game.

Rivera said the reason Norman played while eight other starters got the night off was the Panthers’ lack of depth at corner.

“We’re thin at the position, so we had to play everybody at corner we had to,” Rivera said. “That was it.”

Veteran corner Charles Tillman sustained a concussion in last week’s exhibition against New England. Tillman remains in the protocol and didn’t make the trip to Pittsburgh.

Then the Panthers let cornerback Melvin White go this week in the first round of cuts.

White probably could not have helped against the Steelers, anyway.

The former starter was waived/injured with a hamstring injury. After White cleared waivers, the Panthers reached an injury settlement with him.

Rivera could have started backup corners Carrington Byndom and Teddy Williams, who followed Norman to the training room later in the first half with a groin injury. But Rivera said he never considered sitting Norman, who was in the starting lineup opposite second-year corner Bene’ Benwikere.

The Panthers went to their nickel package on the Steelers’ second play, with Benwikere in the slot and Norman and Williams outside.

On second-and-6 on the Steelers’ first possession, backup quarterback Michael Vick hit Martavis Bryant for a 10-yard gain. Norman came up to make the tackle in a crowd around Bryant.

Benwikere, who was on the other side of the field, said he didn’t get a good look at the play.

“I didn’t even know he went out of the game,” Benwikere said. “I think it’ll be fine. I didn’t see the hit so I don’t know how severe it is. Charles Tillman seems to be fine.”

While many of the starters sat out, there were a few performances worth noting on the most meaningless night on the NFL schedule:

▪ Wideout Corey Brown, who had dropped five passes in the previous two exhibitions, was targeted once against the Steelers. He caught Derek Anderson’s pass cleanly for a 9-yard gain.

That Brown was out of the game by the end of the second quarter would seem to be a strong indicator his roster spot is secure.

▪ Kicker Graham Gano wrapped up a perfect preseason by making three field goals and two extra points. Gano, who battled a back injury last season, was 10-for-10 on field goals and didn’t miss an extra point from the new, 33-yard distance.

▪ Reserve running back Jordan Todman’s special teams skills alone should get him on the 53-man roster. But the former Jacksonville special teams ace didn’t hurt his cause by showing good burst on several runs, including a 49-yard touchdown in the second quarter.

▪ Defensive end Kony Ealy, named a starter this week by Rivera, didn’t have a sack. But he caused one by coming free around the right end and forcing Vick to step up into the path of defensive tackle Kawann Short, who looked good in his first exhibition game after dealing with back spasms.

But the most concerning development was the status of the Panthers’ No. 1 cornerback.

Norman’s tackle on Bryant didn’t look like a particularly jarring hit. But football’s a collision sport, and every snap players risk injuries that could end their careers.

This one won’t end Norman’s. But it puts him in jeopardy for the season opener.

“I didn’t see the play at all. You’ve got to be precautious, especially in this day and age,” safety Kurt Coleman said. “I’m hoping he’ll be back for us however (long) the protocol (is). Hopefully, it’s just on the precautionary side. We need him back out there for this first one for sure.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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