CHARLOTTE — Starting linebacker Jon Beason and top cornerback Chris Gamble are doubtful for the Carolina Panthers’ game Sunday against Seattle, and coach Ron Rivera wasn’t optimistic the two starters will be ready to go against the Seahawks.
Both players are nursing injuries that have been lingering since before the Atlanta game last week, with Beason having a knee injury and Gamble a shoulder injury.
“It’s unless they really show… they’re doubtful. I’m not going to go any further than that,” Rivera said. “I’m a little disappointed. You’d like to have all your guys for sure but they struggled with some of the other stuff.”
In Beason’s place at middle linebacker could be Luke Kuechly, but Rivera has shown apprehension about moving the rookie from the weakside linebacker position to the middle. Jason Phillips spent most of the preseason at middle linebacker and could also see snaps.
Gamble is the team’s top cornerback with rookie Josh Norman starting at the other cornerback position and Captain Munnerlyn assuming the role of nickel back. It’s likely that second-year corner Josh Thomas will take the other cornerback role on Sunday.
A third starter, guard Geoff Hangartner, is listed as questionable with a knee injury. Hangartner did not participate in practice Thursday or Friday, but he worked on the sideline with a trainer and that left Rivera optimistic.
“He was not bad, and we’ll see how he reacts tomorrow morning,” Rivera said. “Ideally if he’s ready to go, you have to really test it on Sunday.”
Garry Williams took the first-team reps in place of Hangartner.
Only reserve offensive lineman Mike Pollak is listed as out with a shoulder injury. Safety Colin Jones (shoulder) and defensive ends Frank Alexander (back) and Antwan Applewhite (knee) are probable for Sunday.
Receiving options: Steve Smith has produced just like Rivera and the Panthers have expected him to this season. But the coach knows the team needs to find downfield targets besides Smith for the vertical passing game to be successful.
Smith is the only listed wide receiver to have more than one catch for the Panthers in each of the past two games. No. 2 wideout Brandon LaFell had only one grab against the Giants and Falcons combined, while quarterback Cam Newton has spread the ball around to different targets in the past two games.
“We’ve got to find ways, if teams are starting to roll toward Steve a little more, we’ve got to find ways to get him open,” Rivera said. “Secondly if we’re going to do some of the things we need to do, we have to expose other players to get balls in their hands. We’ve looked at other options. Listening to (offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski) talk about it, it seems like we are trying to create more opportunities not just for Steve but for the other guys.”
Tight end Greg Olsen has 13 catches for 187 yards in the past two games after a slow start to the season. Last week, eight Panthers had at least one catch.
“We saw the ball go to the tight end, to the backs,” Rivera said. “As long as we’re being productive and putting 28 points on the board, you’re giving yourself a chance to win.”
Neblett inactive: Defensive tackle Andre Neblett will not be active for Sunday’s game.
Neblett is coming off a four-game suspension and is eligible to play, but the Panthers are going to take their one-week exemption with Neblett before making a roster move.
“He did take some reps with the first unit,” Rivera said. “He seemed to get right back in the flow of things. His big thing obviously is to be getting back into football shape. The pushing and conditioning part of it, you can never really simulate that.”
Lynch pin: The Panthers rush defense will have its hands full against the NFL’s leading rusher on Sunday.
Marshawn Lynch comes to Charlotte leading the league in rushing with 423 yards, which is more than Carolina’s two leading rushers – Newton and DeAngelo Williams – have combined.
“He’s hot. He’s tough to bring down,” said Kuechly, the team’s fifth-leading tackler. “They’ve shown us clips of him breaking tackles, being in a pile. There’s a bunch of clips of him from past years being in a big group and he’ll get out and make a big run. We need a lot of guys around him to bring him down.”