Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera stuck to his original timetable Wednesday for running back Jonathan Stewart’s return, but both the coach and the player expressed cautious optimism for the coming weeks.
Stewart suffered a partially torn medial collateral ligament in the third quarter of Sunday night’s game against New Orleans, and Rivera said Stewart will be out at least two weeks with a possible return of Week 17’s season finale at Atlanta.
Stewart said because he’s “never really had a knee injury,” he’s unsure just how long the rehab process will take.
“Who knows? Some say 2-4 weeks, some say 4-6 weeks,” Stewart said. “You Google it and it says 4-6 weeks. I don’t know.
“(The trainers) are just waiting to see. Every person is different coming back from injury. We just have to see. I don’t know when I’m coming back but I’m hopeful that I will.”
Rivera reiterated Stewart would be reevaluated by the training staff next Wednesday.
“I have talked to him a couple times – yesterday and today – and both times, I love Jonathan’s attitude about it,” Rivera said. “I’m pretty optimistic about it just what I’ve heard from him.”
Stewart left the Saints game in the third quarter after he hauled in a pass that went for 16 yards. Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis delivered a hit directly to Stewart’s knee that sent him out of bounds, on the ground and eventually to the locker room.
Stewart said Wednesday there was no resentment from him toward Lewis for the hit.
“The game of football, it’s a physical game. It’s very instinctive,” Stewart said. “You wish you could go back and run completely to the sideline. The nature of the game and me being a physical runner, he took his precautions by tackling me low and that’s part of the game.”
Brotherly advice: Rarely do NFL coaches, even the ones who are friends, talk during the season.
But with the Jets facing the Panthers this Sunday, and Carolina coming off a 31-13 loss to the Saints, New York coach Rex Ryan has already been in touch with his twin brother, Saints defensive coordinator Rob, about the Panthers.
“Oh yeah, without question I’ve already talked to him,” Rex Ryan said on a teleconference Wednesday. “Our defenses are two different defenses, he has his own style, so do we. But again, without question I’ve already talked to him about the things he picked up. Just anything you would do against any opponent, but in particular he just played them this past week so I definitely already talked to him.”
Rob Ryan has had great success against Ron Rivera’s Panthers. Rob was the defensive coordinator for the Cowboys last year in Dallas’ 19-14 win. The Panthers have scored three touchdowns in two games against Rob’s defenses in the past two years.
Rivera said he hopes his team corrects mistakes from last week so as to render whatever tips Rob may give Rex useless.
And even though Rivera said last week he watches TV broadcasts of games to pick up tips from analysts, he said he doesn’t spend much time talking to coaches during the season for tips.
“I don’t necessarily take a lot of stock in talking to a lot people throughout the league,” Rivera said. “Whether he has something from his brother, that’s great. I know Rex and Rob, and Rex is going to do what he does. I will tell you that. Rex is his own person. He may have gotten something from his brother but he’s going to call his own game.”
Smith’s struggles: New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith will face the Panthers just two weeks after he was benched in the second half for backup Matt Simms.
Smith has struggled in his rookie season, passing for nine touchdowns compared to 20 interceptions. He’s also been sacked 39 times this season, and his offensive line is giving up the most sacks per pass play (10 percent) of any team in the league.
“It’s been up and down. Not untypical of a rookie,” Rex Ryan said. “He had a really good week last week. I think the biggest part is it starts with protection. I think if we can protect this young man he’s got the ability to make all the throws and I think that’s something where it has to start.”
It’s been unclear whether Smith is the team’s franchise quarterback moving forward. He replaced Mark Sanchez after Sanchez missed the season with shoulder surgery, and Ryan avoided a question regarding riding with Smith for the rest of the season.
“The only thing we’re focused on is this game so that’s the only thing I can tell you,” Ryan said. “I understand, I recognize we have three games left, but we’re just focused on this game. We have to improve from last week, learn from mistakes that were made and then move on to this opponent. We don’t really focus on thinking that far in advance.”
Pro Bowl voting: Nine Panthers are in the top-10 by positions in fan voting for the Pro Bowl with two weeks left to vote.
Mike Tolbert still leads all fullbacks with 324,223 votes, nearly 100,000 votes more than second place.
The other eight Panthers are: middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (third), free safety Mike Mitchell (fourth), center Ryan Kalil (fourth), special teamer Jordan Senn (eighth), punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. (eighth), quarterback Cam Newton (eighth), defensive end Charles Johnson (ninth) and tight end Greg Olsen (10th).
Fans can vote for their favorite players online at nfl.com/probowl/ballot. Voting ends on Dec. 26.
Stat check: A small tweak to the statistics from Sunday’s loss to the Saints has given Charles Johnson a record with the Panthers.
A sack that was originally credited to Mario Addison was split with Johnson, which gives him a total of nine sacks on the season.
Johnson’s total makes him the first Panthers player in franchise history with at least nine sacks in four consecutive years. Since the start of the 2010 season, Johnson has 42 sacks.
Johnson has 52 sacks in his career. With four more, he will pass Mike Rucker for second in franchise history.
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9