CHARLOTTE – Three Panthers starters – guard Geoff Hangartner (knee), linebacker Jon Beason (knee) and cornerback Chris Gamble (shoulder) – missed practice for the second consecutive day Thursday, and the team is formulating contingency plans in case they are unavailable for Sunday’s home game against the Seattle Seahawks.
Head coach Ron Rivera said Garry Williams would step in for Hangartner at right guard. As for Beason’s middle linebacker spot, Rivera and the coaching staff are still mulling their options. Jason Phillips and rookie Luke Kuechly, who has played the WILL linebacker position all season, are potential candidates for the role.
Guard Mike Pollak (shoulder) and Colin Jones (shoulder) did not participate in Thursday’s practice, though Jones labeled his absence as precautionary. Defensive end Frank Alexander (back) returned to practice and fully participated.
RETURN PLAN:Rivera said rookie
Joe Adams has shown signs of returning to his old self as a returner in practice, but Rivera plans to use Munnerlyn and wide receiver Kealoha Pilares for the second consecutive week – and possibly wide receiver Armanti Edwards.
“If Captain ends up starting (at corner), then we’ll probably have Armanti return some punts for us as well to take some pressure off Captain,” Rivera said.
Edwards was the Panthers’ punt returner in 2011 after Munnerlyn handled most of the duties in 2009 and 2010. Last week at Atlanta, Munnerlyn returned to the role after Adams had struggled with ball security and responded with a 20-yard return.
“I was a little rusty when I first got back there. I hadn’t done it in two years, but I had a pretty good return on one,” Munnerlyn said. “My feet are wet again, and I’m excited to be back there making some plays.”
Pilares, who had two big kickoff returns as a rookie in 2011, returned two kickoffs for 55 yards against the Falcons. That could be his job for the foreseeable future – even if Adams returns to his punt return role.
“In retrospect, we may have expected a little too much from Joe as far having him return kicks as well,” Rivera said. “We’re giving him a chance to take a step back and work on his craft, get comfortable with catching the ball again. He’s been catching punts and catching punts and catching punts.
“He’s doing really well. We want to get him back to where he was as a return man.”
FINDING HIS STRIDE: Panthers kicker Justin Medlock struggled with his kickoffs early in the preseason, but he’s kicked it into high gear since.
In fact, the day after landing the starting role, Medlock found a fix that’s been paying dividends.
“I was hitting them pretty good in practice, but it wasn’t carrying over to the game. Then I shortened my kickoff steps,” Medlock said. “I was kind of getting caught in between steps and was getting under the ball, but after I shortened it, it got me in a better position. Now I’ve just been able to get to the ball and hit it hard.”
In the Panthers’ first three preseason games, when Medlock was competing with Olindo Mare for the job, Medlock didn’t record a touchback on seven kickoffs.
But the day after the Panthers released Mare, leading up to the final preseason game, Medlock unearthed something. Since, he’s had 11 touchbacks on 20 kickoffs, with all but two reaching the end zone.
Said Medlock: “I just tried one without even taking any steps, and I hit it the same, so I said, ‘Hmm.’ I’ve shortened my steps from 12.5 yards to 9.5 yards. It’s really helped the misses, too. Now they’re at least five yards deep in the end zone.”
One thing Medlock hasn’t had much chance to do is kick field goals. He made all four of his field goals in the three preseason games in which he split reps with Mare, but so far he’s just 1-for-1 in the regular season.
The Buffalo Bills also have just one field goal attempt. No other teams have fewer than five.
“It’s a weird deal, but obviously it’s out of my control,” Medlock said. “I don’t think I’ve ever kicked just one field goal in the first month of the season, but obviously I’m happy to just kick extra points, too.”
Staff writer Max Henson and senior writer Bryan Strickland contributed to this report.