Injuries on line give Panthers' Neblett starting gig

Tough matchup with Falcons' Turner ahead

jperson@charlotteobserver.comDecember 8, 2011 

Panthers defensive tackle Andre Neblett has been growing a beard for four months.

It's dark, thick and a little unruly. And, until Wednesday, nobody other than his teammates and coaches noticed it.

But Neblett and fellow defensive tackle Frank Kearse figure to draw a lot more attention over the next four weeks after replacing rookies Sione Fua and Terrell McClain, who were both placed on injured reserve Tuesday.

The Panthers leaned on Fua and McClain, a pair of third-round picks, on the defensive interior for the first 12 games. Now they're turning to two unheralded players who have each spent several Sundays on the inactive list this season.

The Panthers have had success plugging young, unproven players, like defensive end Thomas Keiser, into holes on their defense and special teams the second half of the season. First-year coach Ron Rivera hopes Neblett and Kearse will continue the trend.

They have a tough week to start.

Atlanta running back Michael Turner has been a Panther-killer since signing with the Falcons in 2008. In his last six games against the Panthers, Turner has posted five 100-yard running games and scored 11 touchdowns.

He ran 27 times for 139 yards and two touchdowns in the Falcons' 31-17 win over Carolina in October.

"(He is a) big physical back, so we know we've got to come to play, similar to LeGarrette Blount last week," Neblett said. "We know we've got to get to the ball and make plays and stop him early, stop him from going downhill."

In last week's 38-19 win at Tampa Bay, the Panthers held Blount to 19 yards on 11 carries while giving up a total of 78 rushing yards, the fewest the defense has allowed this season.

Rivera said the Panthers will know in the next couple of days whether Fua and McClain will need surgery.

"It takes the wind out of your sails a little bit, especially the way we've been playing defensively," Rivera said. "They're both young men that have played very well for us. It was kind of hard because both of them have done such a good job for us."

Kearse, Miami's seventh-round pick, was on the Dolphins' practice squad when the Panthers signed him in September. Neblett signed with the Panthers last year as an undrafted free agent from Temple.

"Coming from what we came from, you've definitely got to say there's some more hunger there. We want it more," Neblett said. "With us coming from our backgrounds, we know what it means to have those opportunities and take advantage of them."

Neblett was asked more questions about his beard Wednesday than he was about the Falcons. He said the grown-out style is popular in Philadelphia, where he went to college.

Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said Neblett looks like the rapper and actor Ice Cube.

"I told him to shave it down a little," Munnerlyn said. "It's getting out of hand."

Rivera, who has watched Neblett's progress in recent weeks, said he's excited to get a longer look at the 6-3, 325-pound Kearse.

"He's a big body. He's a space-eater," Rivera said.

Kearse, who played at Alabama A&M, is working on his own starter beard.

"I'm going to try to grow mine out," Kearse said. "It's a three-day process right now."

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