Just as he was breaking out of his sophomore slump, Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei has suffered another setback.
Lotulelei, Carolina’s 2013 first-round pick, broke a bone in his foot late in Tuesday’s practice and had surgery Wednesday morning. Lotulelei will miss Saturday’s playoff game at Seattle after turning in his two strongest performances of the season in consecutive games.
“He’s been having a lot of production,” said second-year defensive tackle Kawann Short. “It takes a lot pressure off a lot of guys on the defensive line, so not having him is going to be a whole other task everybody has to take on.”
Lotulelei rolled his foot after stepping on a teammate’s foot at the end of practice. Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards noticed Lotulelei rolled his ankle and saw him limp as they jogged back to the locker room after practice.
X-rays Tuesday afternoon revealed a fracture to a small bone in the foot. Lotulelei had surgery “first thing in the morning” Wednesday, coach Ron Rivera said, and all hope isn’t lost.
Rivera believes Lotulelei would be able to play in the Super Bowl in three weeks if the Panthers make it.
Lotulelei has been Carolina’s top defensive tackle in the past two games. He registered a career-high seven tackles and two sacks against Atlanta in Week 17 and followed that with three tackles against Arizona in the wild-card game.
An ankle injury Nov. 10 at Philadelphia sidelined Lotulelei for two games. Before that he had struggled in his second season with zero sacks, but he broke out with a big performance in Atlanta.
Lotulelei has played more snaps in the past two games than any other defensive tackle, tallying more than 60 percent of Carolina’s defensive snaps.
Coincidentally, the Seahawks placed defensive tackle Jordan Hill on the injured reserve Tuesday with a calf injury. Hill had been playing similarly hot football with 5 1/2 sacks in his past six games.
Defensive tackle Colin Cole, who played three years for the Seahawks, likely will get the start for Carolina in place of Lotulelei and beside Short.
“It’s a (significant) loss but we’re very fortunate because of our defensive line situation,” Rivera said. “We feel very confident about the guys who are going to step up and get opportunities to play. We feel really good about Colin Cole, who was a starter for us this year and has played very well the last couple of seasons.
“(Short) will continue to play his normal role for us, as will Dwan. We’ll miss Star, but I think we have the guys that can fill in and do more than an adequate job.”
Playing behind Cole will be Kyle Love, a nose tackle the Panthers signed Dec. 15 to bolster their rush defense. Love has been inactive for his past three games, but he has playoff experience.
Love started for the Patriots in their Super Bowl XLVI loss to the Giants following the 2011 season. Since then he has bounced between the Chiefs and Jaguars before landing in Charlotte.
“People haven’t seen my face or my name for a while,” Love said. “So it’ll probably be a shocker for somebody to say, ‘Oh, I remember this guy.’ ”
The Panthers still plan to rotate rookie defensive end Kony Ealy inside at tackle on certain passing downs. Defensive end Charles Johnson has the capacity to play defensive tackle, but Rivera doesn’t want to move him from the outside, where he has been effective during the second half of the season.
Lotulelei has been a key the past two years in stopping Seattle’s ground game. Running back Marshawn Lynch has averaged just 52.5 yards per game against the Panthers in the past two years, nearly 30 yards less than his average per game over that span.
“It’ll be tough. Marshawn’s a great player,” said Edwards, who played with Lynch in Buffalo for one season. “He’s a tremendous back and we’ll have our work cut out for us without Star. It’ll be a tough matchup for us.”