Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers’ running back corps depleted for Steelers game

Facing the third-worst rushing defense in the league, Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers would seem an opportune time for the Carolina Panthers to get their running game revved up.

Except for one thing.

“I hope so, but we are banged-up in the backfield,” fullback Mike Tolbert said. “So this might be a game where we lean more on Cam (Newton) in the passing game.”

Tolbert is dealing with a bruised upper ribcage after getting drilled in the chest by Detroit defensive tackle Nick Fairley last weekend. Running back DeAngelo Williams remains sidelined with a thigh injury that kept the Panthers’ all-time rushing leader out of the 24-7 win against the Lions.

Even the backups have not been immune to the injury bug: Fozzy Whittaker has not practiced because of a quadriceps injury.

The spate of bruises and pulled muscles has left Jonathan Stewart, who’s missed about half of the past two seasons because of injury, in the unusual role of being the team’s only healthy back.

Stewart has logged a lot of miles on the stationary since 2012. But Wednesday he traded places with Williams and Tolbert.

“It seemed like the roles flipped,” Stewart said. “For a while there usually I’m that guy on the bike. Things like that happen and you have to be ready.”

Tolbert returned to practice Thursday, four days after absorbing what he called the hardest hit of his career.

On second-and-goal from the Detroit 1 in the fourth quarter, Tolbert was met 4 yards deep in the backfield by the 6-4, 308-pound Fairley.

“He landed on me, and he landed on me hard,” Tolbert said.

Stewart immediately signaled for trainers to check on Tolbert, who was in pain and having trouble breathing. Tolbert indicated trainers have ordered him a custom padded shirt, much like Newton wore last week against the Lions to protect his cracked ribs.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Tolbert’s injury isn’t as bad as Newton’s, but added Tolbert is not yet “ready to take a shot.”

Although Williams hasn’t practiced in more than a week, Rivera was encouraged by the work he did on the side.

“It’s not like he hasn’t been working, it’s just that we’ve been very cautious with him,” Rivera said. “(Thursday) they overloaded him with a lot of work, stopping and starting and changing direction to see how he was with that. But that was over on the side, not in the actual drills.”

Other injuries: Wideout Jason Avant was limited Wednesday after his thigh tightened up. On Thursday he didn’t practice at all, prompting Rivera to say he was concerned.

“He was pretty sore so we’ll have to take a look at it,” said Rivera.

Jerricho Cotchery, the other wideout the Panthers acquired in free agency, also has a thigh issue. He was listed as limited Thursday.

The news was better for seven other players who returned to practice after sitting out Wednesday, including the top three offensive tackles – Byron Bell (toe), Nate Chandler (knee, toe) and Garry Williams (hip).