Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera hoped defensive end Jared Allen would play 30 to 35 snaps Sunday against Philadelphia after missing two weeks with a pinched nerve in his back.
Allen, 33, ended up playing more than twice than total, logging 78 of a possible 83 defensive reps in the Panthers’ 27-16 victory.
While Allen’s best production came near the end of the game, Rivera said that was too much work for a veteran who needs to be fresh for the stretch run of what certainly appears to be a playoff-bound team.
It’s not just Allen whom Rivera is concerned about. With the NFL’s second-oldest roster, Rivera wants to make sure the Panthers’ coaches aren’t wearing out their veterans during the first half of the season.
“We’ve got to keep these veteran guys young. We can’t put as many snaps on them as we have,” Rivera said Monday. “It’s all about development of our young players as well as we go forward. But at the same time it’s making sure we preserve these guys as we go down the stretch.
“It’s going to be important this year, even more so especially the way the schedule lines up.”
The Panthers, off to the first 6-0 in team history, face Atlanta (6-1) twice in a three-game stretch in December that figures to decide the NFC South.
Carolina’s decision to play young players down the stretch last season helped fuel a four-game winning streak that earned the Panthers their second consecutive division title.
But the offseason signings of veterans such as cornerback Charles Tillman (34) and wide receiver Ted Ginn (30) and the acquisition of Allen via trade last month added to the team’s experience.
The average age on the Panthers’ opening-day roster was 26.92 years. Only Indianapolis, the Panthers’ next opponent, had an older Week 1 roster (27.19 years).
While Rivera likes what the veterans have brought to the locker room, he wants to make sure the young players are getting on the field.
“I think it’s something we have to consciously pay attention to. We’ve got some good young football players,” Rivera said. “It’s a long season. We’ve got 10 games left to go in the regular season, obviously, and we’ve got to continue to develop these young players.”
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said the Eagles’ fast-paced offense made it nearly impossible to make defensive substitutions between plays.
“Once (players) go out there it’s like, ‘Hey, I’ll see you at the end of the series,’” McDermott said. “Sometimes getting them off the field – you saw the tempo – that’s a challenge in and of itself.”
A shoulder injury to defensive end Mario Addison in the third quarter also meant more reps for Allen, who hadn’t played more than 42 reps since Week 1, when he was still with Chicago.
But some of Allen’s best work came during the Eagles’ next-to-last series, when he sacked Sam Bradford and tipped a pass and nearly had another sack that was credited to defensive tackle Kawann Short.
McDermott said it was good to see Allen get back into a rhythm and play with confidence. The increased reps for Allen meant fewer opportunities for backup ends Wes Horton (23 snaps) and Ryan Dellaire (35 reps).
“It’s something I want to see changed. (Allen) is a veteran guy. He’s in great condition. But we roll guys for a specific reason,” Rivera said. “I will say he played strong in the fourth quarter. He made some plays and was involved in some plays.”
It’s not always easy getting a veteran to leave the game.
Take outside linebacker Thomas Davis Sr., 32, the longest-tenured player on the team. Davis, who played all 83 snaps against the Eagles, rarely comes out of games.
“It is very tough to get him off the field. Trust me,” Rivera said. “He wears me out. Every time we talk about taking him out or every time we have taken him out, he stands right behind me and I can feel him breathing (down) my back just trying to get back in.”
Rivera tries to schedule days off from practice for older players such as Davis who are racking up a lot of game mileage. But that doesn’t always fly with Davis, either.
So Rivera said he’ll tell McDermott and linebackers coach Al Holcomb: “Look, we’ve got to be smart about this. Just make up some excuse, just get him off the field.”
Offensive coaches are monitoring the reps of running back Jonathan Stewart. For Stewart, 28, this is the first season he hasn’t shared the backfield with DeAngelo Williams, who was cut and signed with Pittsburgh in the offseason.
Stewart has had back-to-back games with at least 20 carries, and has accounted for 103 of the Panthers’ 197 rushes this season.
“We’re in a little bit of uncharted waters with him because he’s always had with DeAngelo with him,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said.
“It’s a fine line, though. As we’ve seen, he gets better with carries. So where is that fine line? Do you continue to roll with him? If not, then we’ve got other guys with Mike (Tolbert) and Fozzy (Whittaker) and (Cameron Artis-Payne), coming in being a young guy.”