Inside the Panthers

Ron Rivera, Sean McDermott share reasoning behind limited snaps for 2 first-round picks

Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson (54) played about a third of the snaps against New Orleans on Nov. 17, but fewer than a quarter on Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.
Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson (54) played about a third of the snaps against New Orleans on Nov. 17, but fewer than a quarter on Sunday against the Oakland Raiders. TNS

Linebacker Shaq Thompson may have been Carolina’s first round pick in 2015, but he is averaging fewer than half the defensive snaps of counterparts Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.

Thompson saw a gradual increase in his snap count week over week, with a high of 72 in Carolina’s Oct. 16 game against New Orleans. Then he suffered a knee injury against Arizona and missed two games.

In his return against New Orleans in Week 10, he was on the field for 33 percent of the defensive snaps. Sunday, he played fewer than a quarter.

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and head coach Ron Rivera said via conference call on Monday that since Thompson, a strongside linebacker, is already expected to play what the team calls the “buffalo,” the team is trying to lighten his load.

A buffalo nickel, or “big nickel” is a hybrid linebacker/safety sent in instead of a traditional defensive back to defend against larger receivers or tight ends, and to help defend the run.

“He’s doing double-duty in terms of learning, so we put a lot on his plate to begin with,” said Rivera, via conference call. “Then you start playing these teams that come out with four-wide and five-wide at times. That’s what we got from Oakland. ...We had to go right into our nickel package, and it kind of put us in a tough spot.”

That meant sending in corner Leonard Johnson, who is still recovering from a chest injury, and Robert McClain, who was banged up in the first half.

“I think Shaq has played a nice role for us in terms of that big (buffalo) nickel position and at linebacker as well,” said McDermott. “He offers great flexibility in that big nickel and also the linebacker spot. The way people are playing us, and the way people are spreading people out a little more, he gives us a nice value in terms of playing in space.”

McDermott was asked why Thompson didn’t play any snaps in traditional nickel situations alongside Thomas Davis, as A.J. Klein played the entire game in place of injured Luke Kuechly (concussion).

McDermott said that decision was about workload, and that sending Thompson in would mean he would have to rotate between three positions – buffalo, weak side linebacker and nickel linebacker – in one game.

“I feel like, sometimes it’s a challenge to play three positions in one game,” he said. “In Shaq’s case, he’s already playing two positions for us. ... It’s a challenge to play two positions, let alone three.”

Another first-round pick, Vernon Butler, has been limited in his first year with the Panthers. After suffering a high ankle sprain againstthe Vikings on Sept. 25, then re-tweaking it when he tried to return, Butler has not seen much game action. He was healthy but on the inactive list for Sunday’s game.

“Getting Vernon on the field, unfortunately he’s been battling through an injury,” said McDermott. “He should help us and has helped us. We need to get him into a rhythm and I’m sure he looks forward to getting into one as well.”

Rivera said Butler’s health did not factor into his withholding him from the game.

“That ankle is going to come back a little slower,” he said. “Sitting him down yesterday had very little to do with that, it had more to do with strategy and the things we wanted to do.

“Is he back to the guy we saw at the beginning? No, not yet. He’s not going to be until we stop playing. We expect Vernon to keep practicing and keep competing.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue