Just in time for the biggest game of the early season, the Carolina Panthers could have linebacker Luke Kuechly back on the field.
Kuechly, who’s missed the past three and a half games with a concussion, is set to meet with an independent neurologist this week and could be cleared and out of the concussion protocol.
Carolina has a bye this week, then travels to Seattle to meet the Seahawks on Oct. 18.
“Hopefully in the next couple of days they’ll be able to get that thing taken care of,” said Panthers coach Ron Rivera on Monday. “We’re pretty optimistic, but you know how I am.”
Monday, Rivera revealed Kuechly did meet with the independent doctor last week but was not cleared to return to play.
The Panthers are 4-0 despite missing Kuechly for 14 of the 16 quarters Carolina has played. Kuechly’s replacement, A.J. Klein, has played well in his stead, but there’s a reason the Panthers gave Kuechly a $63 million extension before the season.
Where Kuechly is perhaps missed the most has been on third-down situations. Teams are converting 39 percent of their third downs against the Panthers, and Tampa Bay converted 50 percent of their tries on Sunday, when the Panthers won 37-23.
Carolina is also in the middle of the league in red-zone defense, allowing touchdowns on 57 percent of opponents’ trips inside the 20.
“If there was one area, that’s one that probably sticks out the most. That and red zone,” Rivera said. “I think we weren’t as effective as we need to be in the red zone. I think Luke’s absence was part of it. But I think part of it too was A.J. doesn’t really play a lot on third downs and he had to play a lot more than he normally has to.
“And it wasn’t really A.J. either. It was some of the people around and different positions. There are some things that go into it and I think again hopefully getting Luke back soon will correct those things.”