Four weeks into last season, the Panthers moved Luke Kuechly from weakside linebacker to the middle and allowed the rookie to take over Jon Beason’s position before he was placed on injured reserve.
Sunday, Chase Blackburn got his first reps at weakside linebacker, the position Beason started at the first two games of this season. The ninth-year linebacker Blackburn got 17 defensive snaps compared to Beason’s one, and Blackburn received high praise from coaches and teammates alike following the Panthers’ 38-0 victory against the Giants.
But coach Ron Rivera was noncommittal about whether Blackburn would get the start at weakside when the Panthers return from their bye week.
“We'll have to see. We've got two days of practice this week and then a whole week to get ready for Arizona,” Rivera said Monday. “Again, as we go through this, we're going to put the people on the field that give us the best opportunity to win football games.”
Blackburn did not get a defensive snap through two games with Beason taking all the reps at weakside and coming out of the game when the Panthers moved to their nickel coverage. But Beason, a three-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker, had been a step slow in some instances this season after returning from microfracture knee surgery in October.
Against the Bills, receivers caught all five passes thrown their way when Beason was defending, for a combined 112 yards.
Rivera admitted it was difficult having to sit Beason, who has needed the live-action reps in order to heal his knee.
“He is a competitor. He's working hard to recapture that form and that style of football he’s used to playing,” Rivera said. “We'll continue to keep giving him reps, keep working with him, keep developing him and we'll see.”
Rivera said he gave thought to playing Beason in the fourth quarter, but he didn’t want to “expose him to anything” given the fact the Giants would be passing the ball a lot.
Blackburn used his experience against New York. He played eight years with the Giants before signing a two-year deal with Carolina this offseason, and he was able to recognize and communicate the Giants’ plays before they snapped the ball.
“He’s a great leader and I was impressed with how he played,” defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “Energy to the team was exciting and I’m sure it was a big day for Chase and we’re glad he was able to experience that. Moving forward it will always be the best player for the best situation.”
A Cam Newton pass to Greg Olsen went for 7 yards to the Giants’ 2, just a yard shy of a conversion.
“It’s funny because I looked up at the scoreboard and it had first-and-goal and then I looked down and said hey wait they haven’t given us the first down yet so they said well it’s fourth down,” Rivera said.
Shula called a Mike Tolbert rush to the right end with Newton under center and out of the I-formation. Fullback Richie Brockel was the lead blocker while left guard Amini Silatolu pulled to the right to help block.
Tolbert used Mathias Kiwanuka’s over-pursuit to his advantage, then shook a tackle from Antrel Rolle to get into the end zone and give the Panthers a 7-0 first-quarter lead.
The play looked similar to the call late in the fourth quarter of Week 2’s loss at Buffalo. Out of the shotgun, Newton handed the ball to Tolbert, who followed blocks by Olsen and Silatolu on the right side but came up a yard short on a third-and-5. The Panthers would kick the field goal to go up 23-17.
“It's one of those things where in my mind, I was going into this game knowing we just had to score touchdowns,” Rivera said. “Against a team like this with the ability to score very quickly, you just have to score touchdowns.
“Secondly, if we don't get it, I like where our defense was at that point. We'd had two really good series against them.”
He expects three of the six injured players who sat out Sunday’s game will return, though he wasn’t specific who. Defensive back D.J. Moore (knee), cornerback James Dockery (thumb/shoulder), safety Quintin Mikell (ankle), running back Kenjon Barner (foot) and cornerback Josh Thomas (concussion) sat Sunday. Defensive end Frank Alexander was a healthy scratch, with Rivera saying he wanted to see what undrafted rookie Wes Horton could do.
Wide receiver Steve Smith injured his left hip in the second quarter after taking a hard fall on a deep incompletion but returned to the game after two official snaps. Rivera had not seen the trainer before meeting with the media Monday but suspected Smith suffered a hip pointer.
The former Independence and North Carolina standout had one target but no catches in his first professional game in Charlotte. He played in 45 of New York’s 52 snaps after missing Friday’s practice for personal reasons.
“It’s part of the game,” Nicks said, according to the Newark Star-Ledger. “You’ve got to control what you can control. I can’t throw it to myself.”