In the 11 months since Jonathan Stewart last appeared in a game, the Carolina Panthers running back has undergone surgeries on both ankles, put in hundreds of hours of rehab and logged countless miles on stationary bikes without going anywhere.
But barring any setbacks, Stewart will be back Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.
Stewart practiced in full pads Wednesday for the first time since last November, and afterward pronounced himself good to go.
“I feel ready,” Stewart said.
Asked whether Stewart likely would play against the Falcons, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said: “Yeah, he looked good.”
Stewart has been on the physically unable to perform list since the preseason. He began practicing last week, but was never in the mix to play in last Thursday night’s game against Tampa Bay.
Rivera said the Panthers want to see how Stewart responds to Wednesday’s work, and can wait until 4 p.m. Saturday before activating him for Sunday’s game.
But based on how he practiced Wednesday, all indications are Stewart will play.
“He just looked fast. Fresh legs,” Rivera said. “Seriously, he looked good. He made some really nice cuts. So it’s exciting. It really is.”
“It felt good going out there, hitting the field full-speed with some contact. And just running plays with contact,” Stewart said. “It’s different going from running sprints, pulling sleds, even just walk-through practices – half-speed here, half-speed there – to full pads.
“Today was a good step. It was fun. Just good to be back out there in the huddle. Everything feels good right now.”
Stewart was the Panthers’ starter last year before going down Nov. 26 at Philadelphia with the second of his two ankle injuries. He finished the season with 336 yards on 93 carries in nine games – all career lows.
Stewart, a 2008 first-round pick out of Oregon, has a career average of 4.7 yards per carry and teamed with DeAngelo Williams in 2009 to become the first rushing tandem in league history to run for 1,100 yards apiece.
“You dream about playing in the NFL all of your life and you never know when your last snap is. You can take things for granted,” Stewart said. “And sitting back for a year watching guys go through OTAs, minicamp and training camp and the first few games of the season is tough. Just being back and being a part of the scheme of things is a good thing.”
Stewart said he also expects Williams to be on the field against the Falcons. Williams bruised his thigh in the second half against the Buccaneers, but had a good day working out and conditioning Wednesday, according to Rivera.
Rivera said Williams’ absence from team drills allowed Stewart to get the bulk of the work. How the carries will be shared during games remains to be seen.
Williams leads the team and is 10th in the league in rushing with 477 yards on 114 attempts. Fullback Mike Tolbert has been productive in short-yardage situations and leads the Panthers with five touchdowns – three rushing and two receiving.
But Stewart gives the Panthers a tough, between-the-tackles runner who, as Rivera mentioned, should have a good initial burst after his 11-month hiatus.
“One thing we can’t worry about is making sure everybody gets enough touches. What has to happen is when these guys get their opportunities they have to be quality touches,” Rivera said.
“We can’t force things. What we’ve got to do is (offensive coordinator) Mike (Shula) has to continue to call his game the way he wants to call it, and at the end of the day when you get your opportunity, make the best of it.”
Stewart is ready for his chance, saying his first carry Wednesday was a play called “20 Iso,” with Tolbert the lead blocker.
At least one defender wasn’t going to get in his way.
“I wasn’t going to touch him,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “He’s got a lot of aggression going on right now. He’s ready to hit somebody. He looked great in practice. He’s ready. I’m excited to see him get out there and play.”
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