The wheels are in motion for what the Carolina Panthers plan to do at cornerback after a spate of injuries on Sunday.
Monday morning, Panthers coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman met to discuss whether to bring in corner help from outside or promote a player from the practice squad.
The eventual move comes after the Panthers were dealt their biggest injury blow of the regular season in Sundauy’s 38-0 victory against Atlanta. Cornerback Bené Benwikere, who had been playing outside in the absence of Charles Tillman, fractured his lower leg left and is out for the season.
While the Panthers have preached “next man up,” there aren’t many healthy men left.
Colin Jones, who played at the nickel before the team signed Cortland Finnegan, suffered a groin injury during the game and it’s unclear if he’ll miss any time. Finnegan has played outside, but he’s better suited inside in this defense.
Tillman suffered a knee injury against Tennessee last month and has missed the past four games. He said after the game he’s “close” to returning but he hasn’t been on the practice field yet.
“The only real test will be when he’s on the field doing the things he needs to, and that’s what we’ve got to find out on Wednesday,” Rivera said. “Wednesday will be a big day for him. To expect anything from going out there with the trainers on Monday and Tuesday is not the same thing. We’ve got to put him into a competitive atmosphere and see how he handles it.”
The Panthers are considering elevating Lou Young from the practice squad or signing a player such as Robert McClain, who worked out with the team last month before the Panthers signed Finnegan.
Whatever they decide, playing more 4-3 base defense is almost a certainty.
In the victory over Atlanta, rookie linebacker Shaq Thompson played 58 percent of the snaps, meaning the Panthers played in their base defense for more than half of the game.
The NFL has been a nickel league in recent years as the passing game has grown. Teams will take a linebacker off the field and replace him with a cornerback who can keep up with a slot receiver.
But one reason the Panthers selected Thompson in the first round of this year’s draft was because of his versatility. He played running back, safety and linebacker at Washington before coming to Carolina strictly as an outside linebacker.
At 6-0 and 230 pounds, Thompson doesn’t have the size and bulk of a prototypical outside linebacker, and that helps him stay on the field more in passing downs. He’s not a liability in coverage.
“I think there are some things we can mix in,” Rivera said of the 4-3 defense with Thompson. “It was actually really good that we were in that situation because we got to work it a little more. Some things we’ve done in the past we were able to fall back to.”
It’s possible that as the Panthers figure out what to do in the defensive backfield, they’ll roll with the 11 best defenders.
“It’s a week to week thing. Sometimes it’s matchups, sometimes it’s best personnel and just run with what we’ve got,” defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “It’s a collective, shared plan if you will, week to week, and we’ll see what gives us our best chance to win.”