Buccaneers at Panthers 1 p.m. Sunday, Fox

Panthers to bridge offensive woes with Bridges

Former Panthers lineman returns to help shore up protection

jperson@charlotteobserver.comNovember 15, 2012 

After an abysmal seven-sack showing in a loss to Denver, the Panthers are reshuffling their offensive line.

The guy renting Jeremy Bridges’ house in Ballantyne will be doing some shuffling of his own.

After returning to Charlotte this week to try to shore up his former team’s line, Bridges needs his place back.

“He’s on a month-to-month (lease) right now, anyway,” Bridges said Wednesday.

Bridges also figures to displace Jeff Byers at right guard, Bridges’ position for two of his three seasons during his first stint with the Panthers from 2006-2008. Bridges went on injured reserve with Arizona in Week 1 with torn ligaments in his left thumb, and hasn’t played since the preseason.

Bridges, 32, was waived off IR last week after reaching an injury settlement with the Cardinals. After passing his physical with the Panthers, he signed a one-year deal Wednesday for the veteran minimum.

The Panthers view Bridges as an upgrade over Byers, who has struggled since moving into the starting lineup. Bridges said he worked some Wednesday with the first team at right guard, a position that has been a trouble spot since starter Geoff Hangartner shifted to center following Ryan Kalil’s foot injury.

While protection was the concern last week, the line has to do a better job run-blocking this week against Tampa Bay. The Panthers (2-7) managed just 10 rushing yards – tying a franchise low – on 13 carries in a Week 1 loss to the Buccaneers.

The Panthers are 15th in the NFL in rushing offense, averaging 109.1 yards a game. Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart – in whom the Panthers have invested $44.5 million in guaranteed money – are on pace for career lows in rushing yards for a full season.

Carolina will look to get healthy against a Tampa Bay defense ranked first against the run, allowing 80.1 rushing yards a game.

“They move around a lot. They stunt a lot. They’re undersized, but they’re very athletic,” Bridges said. “And of course when you play an undersized line, you’re going to get those line stunts and backers coming late in the run game.

“We’ve got to get a hat on a head and get it moving, get DeAngelo and Johnny rolling.”

Bridges, 6-4 and 326 pounds, said he had been hanging out in Arizona with his wife and kids, working out and waiting for his thumb to heal. He was in the men’s shoes section at a Louis Vuitton store this week when he got a call on his cell from a 704 area code.

He recognized the voice on the other end as Mark Koncz, the Panthers’ director of pro scouting. Koncz wanted Bridges to come in for a workout.

“It was good from there,” Bridges said. “I told the wife. She got all excited.”

Bridges, who was arrested in each of his last two seasons in Charlotte, said he told interim general manager Brandon Beane he is a changed man.

“I told Brandon Beane that the old Jeremy’s dead. He’s in the grave. I’m a family man,” Bridges said. “I’ve got a wife and kids. That’s my core. That’s what I do. The whole nine weeks I was on IR in Arizona, my kids and wife were my focus.”

Bridges said he didn’t blame the Panthers for releasing him at the end of the 2008 season.

“They had a lot of money invested in me at the time. The first incident happened. The second incident happened. As an organization, they’re not going to take that,” he said. “It was understandable, no hard feelings. It’s the business, and I understood I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain.”

Panthers coach Ron Rivera was a Philadelphia assistant when the Eagles drafted Bridges in the sixth round in 2003.

“His last few years in Arizona he seemed to have matured, and he’s a veteran guy. He’s a guy who can come in and help us,” Rivera said. “We felt very comfortable with him. I feel pretty confident that he’ll come in here and be able to do what we need him to do for us.”

Hangartner and left tackle Jordan Gross played with Bridges during his first stop here. That familiarity should help speed the transition process.

“You already know what he brings and what he can do,” receiver Steve Smith said. “It’s unfortunate, possibly someone losing their job. But he was out there and they wanted to give him a shot. That’s good for us. Some stability.”

Bridges, who is 15 pounds heavier than Byers, said he’s working his way back into football shape.

“I’ve got to get my feet back under me, get my lungs back,” he said. “I can run around the whole city. But it’s different when you’re wrestling 300-pound men for 8 seconds at a time.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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