In what has become a weekly tradition at Bank of America Stadium, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera began his Monday news conference addressing the latest injury to a running back.
But the news that DeAngelo Williams is doubtful this week with an injured right foot was tempered somewhat by the fact that, as poorly as the Panthers have played the past two weeks, their division rivals haven’t been any better.
Carolina’s run game might be in shambles, the defense has gone suddenly soft and the Panthers have been outscored 75-29 in back-to-back losses to Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The silver lining: At least they don’t play in the AFC North.
Instead, the Panthers will head into this week’s game against Chicago tied with Atlanta for first place in the division.
“It’s no time to panic. The team that’s leading the NFC South is 2-2,” Rivera said. “There’s still a lot of hope now. I just hope we understand that.”
Slow starts were the norm during Rivera’s first three seasons in Charlotte. The Panthers started 1-3 last season before rattling off eight consecutive wins and going on to win the division for the first time since 2008.
But the 2013 team featured a healthy Cam Newton, the league’s second-ranked defense and a devastating pass rush led by end Greg Hardy.
This year Newton, a Pro Bowl quarterback, has been slowed considerably after offseason ankle surgery and a preseason rib injury. The defense has fallen to the bottom third of the league rankings after giving up 454 yards to both the Steelers and Ravens.
And the Panthers are paying Hardy $770,000 a game not to play after he was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list pending his Nov. 17 jury trial on domestic violence charges.
Then there are injury woes among the running backs, who could hold their position meetings in the training room, assuming there’s space for all of them.
Williams left during the first half of Sunday’s 38-10 loss to Baltimore after Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith came down on the back of Williams’ heel after diving to tackle him.
Williams joins three other running backs on the injury report, which also includes Jonathan Stewart (sprained right knee) and fullback Mike Tolbert, who is on the short-term injured reserve until at least late-November with a hairline fracture in his left leg. Fozzy Whittaker, who has been sidelined with a quad injury, could return to practice Wednesday.
Stewart tried to practice last Friday but did not look close to ready. Rivera said he would be re-evaluated this week.
The Panthers addressed the running back situation Monday by signing Chris Ogbonnaya, who worked out for the Panthers last week when they signed Tauren Poole.
Ogbonnaya, 28, a seventh-round draft pick by St. Louis in 2009, has rushed for 660 yards in 46 career games for St. Louis, Houston and Cleveland, where he spent the past three seasons before being released in August.
To make room for Ogbonnaya, the Panthers cut Poole, who fumbled against the Ravens on his first career carry. Earlier Monday, Rivera said he wanted to add a veteran back who could learn the offense in a hurry.
“Those are the guys we’re looking for – a veteran guy that can pick up the system quickly,” Rivera said. “Whether he’s been in it or not, a veteran guy – third-, fourth-, fifth-year guys, they can do that.”
When Williams went out against Baltimore, the Panthers were left with two undrafted free agents at running back: Poole and rookie Darrin Reaves, who had 12 carries for 26 yards.
Williams, Stewart and Tolbert have played one game together – a 20-14 win against Tampa Bay in Week 1. But with injuries mounting and Newton no longer a running threat, the Panthers have plummeted to 29th in rushing offense at 71 yards a game.
Carolina also ranks among the league’s worst at stopping the run, which Rivera said he views as more of an issue than what has become an anemic pass rush without Hardy.
Rivera said the problem has been an undisciplined approach among the front seven, with players leaving their gaps and getting exposed. Rivera counted 14 plays against the Ravens in which at least two defenders were out of position.
“If it were one individual, that would be easy,” he said. “But the problem is if there’s a breakdown in one area and somebody else tries to make up for that, overcompensates, and now that crease is open.”
Although the Panthers were blown out in Baltimore, they didn’t lose any ground in the division. Atlanta (2-2) and New Orleans (1-3), which are two of the league’s four worst defenses, were gashed by Minnesota and Dallas, respectively.
Tampa Bay (1-3) was the only NFC South team to win Sunday, upsetting Pittsburgh on the road.
Although a couple of his players said it’s too early to start looking at the standings, Rivera disagrees.
“We’ve got to understand is we’re right in the middle of the thick of things,” Rivera said. “We are above water right now. But if we’re not careful, we can go under water.”
The Panthers probably would be considered to be treading water at .500.
But cornerback Josh Norman, named a starter Monday after Melvin White struggled against the Ravens, said the Panthers are still in a good spot.
“These last two weeks we kind of hit a little lull area. But we’re not hitting a panic button. We’re not going (to) jump off ship, nothing like that,” Norman said. “We’re going to continue to do what we’ve always done and press through adversity.
“We had it last year. Come back to this year and we’re having it still. We’re going to press through those rough times, and we’re going to get over them.”