As he cut the tape off his ankles and prepared to take the brace off his surgically repaired right knee, left guard Amini Silatolu was the embodiment of the Carolina Panthers’ banged-up offensive line.
The linemen might not be 100 percent yet, but they’re getting there.
That’s encouraging news for a Panthers team that has used five different line combinations this season, and was forced to press David Foucault, a raw French-Canadian player signed out of a tryout camp, into action at left tackle in last week’s loss to New Orleans.
Three of the injured linemen returned to practice Wednesday after the Panthers’ four-day “mini-bye” after the 28-10 loss to the Saints last Thursday.
Left tackle Byron Bell, who sat out the Saints game with knee and elbow injuries, and Silatolu were back working with the first team, and rookie guard Trai Turner (left knee and ankle) practiced in a limited capacity.
It was Silatolu’s first practice since he strained his left calf in the tie at Cincinnati on Oct. 12.
“I haven’t practiced full speed in a while,” Silatolu said. “It felt good, though.”
Coach Ron Rivera said it was good to see starters return up front, adding the line has to stay healthy if the Panthers (3-5-1) are going to get hot during the second half of the season.
“In order for us to make a run ... we’ve got to have some groups have some continuity, that (line) being one of them,” Rivera said. “It’s a group that’s been up and down because of the injuries.”
None of the injuries have been season-ending, but the missed games for Silatolu (three) and Turner (two) came in the midst of the toughest stretch of the schedule.
Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said shuffling linemen in and out makes it challenging in terms of line calls and getting proper fits on double-team blocks.
“It’s not to say the other guys can’t do it. But you have more experience, you have more time spent with some of those other guys,” Kalil said. “It makes it a little bit easier to do a better job with some of those fits and things, and communication.”
With Bell and the two guards out against the Saints, the Panthers’ left side featured a pair of undrafted rookies in guard Andrew Norwell and Foucault, a former hockey player who was the No. 5 overall pick in the CFL draft.
Foucault gave up three of the four sacks allowed against the Saints, although Bell said Foucault played well until late in the game.
“These guys have futures, most certainly,” Rivera said. “But having to play young guys is not as ideal as you would like.”
Norwell’s future might be now. With Silatolu returning to the left side, Norwell shifted to the right side and is expected to start Monday night at Philadelphia (6-2).
Norwell, a 6-foot-6, 310-pounder, has impressed coaches and teammates with his strength and aggressive blocking style.
“He’s a big, physical football player. He’s young, he’s powerful. He’s stout at the point of attack,” Rivera said. “He’s got great hand placement. He’s got decent feet for a big guy his size.”
Norwell, a former Ohio State standout, should be well rested for the Eagles game. He said he took a lot of naps during the break.
Bell also benefitted from the time off. He said the free weekend helped reduce the swelling and improve the range of motion in his knee.
“It might tighten up throughout the week, but I’m playing Monday,” Bell said.
Bell said he hopes the line can rediscover the timing it had early in the season before the injuries began to pile up.
While most observers agree the line has not held up well after the offseason retirements of left tackle Jordan Gross and guards Travelle Wharton and Geoff Hangartner, the group has allowed fewer sacks than at this point last season.
Through nine games in 2013, the Panthers had allowed 26 sacks for a loss of 210 yards. This year Carolina has given up 20 sacks for minus-144 yards, despite having attempted 42 more passes than at this point last season.
“I feel like if we get back on the rhythm we’d been on, we should be good,” Bell said. “Injuries hurt us. But I feel like if we get guys back healthy, we should be fine.”
Rivera is eager to see what the line can become if it stays in one piece.
“You get an opportunity to build that cohesiveness again,” Rivera said. “We’ve used different offensive lines almost the entire season. It’d be nice to be able to settle in and have that group there for a while.”