Stewart could return to Panthers’ backfield Sunday

jjones@charlotteobserver.comDecember 21, 2012 

PANTHERS_BEARS_1029_93

Carolina Panthers (28) running back Jonathan Stewart looks to break to the outside on a run during fourth quarter action as Chicago Bears (93) defensive tackle Nate Collins rushes on Sunday, October 28, 2012. The Bears defeated the Panthers 23-22 at Soldier Field in Chicago, IL. Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

JEFF SINER — jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

A week after not making the trip to San Diego, Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart may play for the first time in nearly a month.

Stewart is listed as questionable for Sunday’s match against Oakland, his most optimistic injury status since suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 12 against Philadelphia.

Stewart was limited in Friday’s practice, his first time on the practice field since the injury.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the biggest concern is Stewart’s lateral movement.

“That’s the thing that you always worry about with a running back because he has to stick his foot in the ground and make that cut,” Rivera said. “We’ll see how he is and how he reacts to being out there (in practice).”

Should Stewart he be able to play, he could unseat DeAngelo Williams as the starter. In Stewart’s absence, Williams has 51 carries for 216 yards in the past three games.

Stewart could also cause Armond Smith to be inactive for Sunday’s game. Smith, brought up from the practice squad in Week 14, has been the team’s kick returner the past two games, taking over for Armanti Edwards.

“That’ll be a tough question for us,” Rivera said. “We’re really going to have to think about it. I really like what we’re getting out of Armond, especially with his special teams contribution. So we’ll see where we are Sunday and our contingency plan of who would end up returning if he didn’t.”

INJURY REPORT: Starting center Geoff Hangartner (foot) is listed as doubtful for Sunday. He has not practiced all week, and he sat out last week with Jeff Byers taking his place.

Right tackle Byron Bell and reserve center/guard Thomas Austin returned to practice Friday after being ill earlier in the week. Rivera joked the team must not have disinfected the meeting room quickly enough, because starting right guard Garry Williams sat out Friday with the same illness and is questionable.

Rivera expects to have starting defensive tackle Dwan Edwards (wrist) and wide receiver Brandon LaFell (toe) back Sunday. They’re listed as probable.

HOME FINALE: Sunday is the final home game of the season for the Panthers, and it could be Rivera’s final home game as the team’s head coach.

The Panthers are 2-5 at home this season, and 5-10 under Rivera in the past two seasons.

“Every victory is important and the last one at home is important because you want to set the tone going into next season more than anything else,” Rivera said. “Whatever happens, happens. I think it’s more about getting the players ready to play and hope they come out and play well.

“This game is important to me because it’s our next game.”

Jones: 704-358-5223; Twitter: @jjones9

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