With relevance comes attention, and for the Carolina Panthers, that attention may have led to a show of nerves Friday.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he noticed his players practicing nervously Friday morning, which he characterized as making mental mistakes and missing assignments.
“I said, ‘Hey guys, let’s focus back in. We’re a little nervous, we made some mistakes that we normally don’t. Let’s focus in and that’s what we’re trying to do,’” Rivera said. “We’re trying to emphasize it’s another game.”
The Panthers (5-3) will play the 6-3 49ers (6-2) on Sunday in one of the biggest games in Week 10 in the NFL. Carolina’s four consecutive wins have brought more national attention, and each day Rivera has tried to stress to his players that Sunday’s contest against San Francisco is the biggest only because it’s the next game on the schedule.
Despite his players’ nerves, Rivera said it wasn’t necessarily a bad omen for Sunday.
“It’s a good omen because to me they realize how important it is,” he said. “The important thing is pulling them back. Settle down, bringing them back to focus. It can be a bad omen but again, making sure we bring them back to focus.”
Familiar line: As expected, right guard Chris Scott has been ruled out of Sunday’s game after spraining his right knee last week against the Atlanta Falcons. Former defensive tackle Nate Chandler, who took over after Scott and backup Jeff Byers (foot) both went down against the Falcons, will make his first career start against the 49ers.
Veteran guard Geoff Hangartner, who re-signed for a third stint with the Panthers this week, will rotate with Chandler as Hangartner gets back into football shape, Rivera said.
When Hangartner is in the game for his expected 12-15 snaps, the Panthers will have their starting line from Rivera’s first season in 2011: center Ryan Kalil, guards Travelle Wharton and Hangartner and tackles Byron Bell and Jordan Gross.
“That’s what crazy. It’s almost like it’s gone full circle. This could potentially be the line that we started with,” Rivera said. “But the elements are there. The thing that I like is the guys we have are all smart guys that have played together. They’re comfortable with each other and Cam (Newton) has a lot of confidence in that group of guys because he knows them.”
Wharton, who missed the 2012 season with Cincinnati after tearing his ACL, re-signed with Carolina in August after injuries to offensive linemen Bruce Campbell and rookie Edmund Kugbila.
The line will be tested by San Francisco’s 3-4 defense. The Panthers haven’t faced a three-man front since a 22-6 loss to Arizona in Week 5, when they gave up a season-high seven sacks.
But four of those sacks came in the second half after the Panthers had fallen behind.
“It will be interesting to see how we handle it,” Rivera said. “If we can have success early, we can probably dictate the things that they’re going to try to do against us.”
Gun show: The absence of Carolina Panthers reserve cornerback James Dockery, who is out two to four weeks with a torn labrum, will force the Panthers to try another “gunner” opposite Colin Jones on the punt team.
Rivera indicated backup cornerback Josh Thomas and rookie running back Kenjon Barner would handle the gunner duties, with starting corners Captain Munnerlyn and Melvin White available if necessary.
“Kenjon’s fast as heck and he’s shown that he can tackle,” Rivera said. “He did it in the preseason for us a couple times.”
Game-day decision: Linebacker Chase Blackburn (foot) is listed as questionable and will be a game-day decision.
Blackburn followed a similar practice path this week as he did last week, sitting out Wednesday and Thursday’s practices but participating in a limited capacity on Friday. Rivera said Blackburn responded well Friday to the new orthotics for his foot.
Blackburn played 18 of the 50 defensive snaps last week, coming out during passing situations. Should he be unable to go, rookie A.J. Klein could see a bulk of the snaps against the 49ers, who lead the league at 153 rushing yards per game.
“You want that big body in there, but A.J.’s had a really good week, so I’m excited for A.J.,” Rivera said. “And A.J. played well when he got in in the fourth quarter against Atlanta. He went in and made some plays.”
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