(Eds: Updates. With AP Photos.)|
By STEVE REED
AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he has confidence in veteran running back DeAngelo Williams should he be forced to carry the load against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Panthers benched Williams, their all-time leading rusher, before Week 7 for Jonathan Stewart and he's seen a reduced workload since.
But with Stewart sustaining a high ankle sprain in Monday night's win over Philadelphia, Rivera said Williams could be thrust back into the starting lineup against the Chiefs (1-10) on Sunday.
Rivera said it's still too early in the week to know Stewart's status, although Stewart was held out of Wednesday's light practice.
``He's run hard and every opportunity he's taken advantage of it,'' Rivera said of Williams. ``He's practiced well and he's been a professional. That's all you can ask for. He'll get his chance obviously and (fullback) Mike Tolbert will be the backup as far as the tailback position is concerned and Richie Brockel will play some fullback.''
The Panthers gave Williams a five-year, $43 million deal before the 2011 season, but the 29-year-old running back hasn't come close to producing the type of numbers that would warrant such a big contract.
He ran for 836 yards and seven touchdowns in 2011, but this year has just 292 yards rushing and three TDs.
His yards per carry also dipped dramatically. He came into the season averaging 5.1 yards per carry for his career, but this season is down to 3.2.
Williams' lack of playing time this season is a far cry from his heyday with the Panthers, when former coach John Fox relied on him more in the running game. Williams' 96 touches this season pale in comparison to the 2009 season when, at the height of his production, he had 223 touches through the first 11 games.
Despite his reduced role, offensive tackle Jordan Gross said Williams' approach to the game has not changed.
``He's been a great teammate and a great locker-room guy his entire career here, and this year is no different,'' Gross said. ``I know it has been challenging for him when he got named as the second string and not the starter, but fortunately in this offense there's not a big difference between the starter and the backup.''
Gross expects Williams to embrace a chance to be the team's primary ball carrier.
``If Stew doesn't play I know DeAngelo is not going to be upset about getting more carries,'' Gross said. ``We have done well with him in the past. It will be hard to be down a guy, but I have faith in all of our backs.''
Williams was unavailable for comment Wednesday.
Looking to go to more of a power running game, Rivera made the decision to bench Williams and go with Stewart after the bye week.
Rivera said at the time Williams disagreed with the decision.
Williams never complained publicly about the move, although he did take to his Twitter account and re-tweet the comments of several of his followers who expressed frustration with his lack of playing time.
In the six games since being benched, Williams has just 43 carries for 119 yards.
Outside of a disputed 30-yard touchdown run against the Washington Redskins - a score the NFL later said should have been overturned - Williams hasn't been much of a factor for the Panthers (3-8).
This week could be different.
The Chiefs come in with the 24th-ranked run defense in the NFL, so Rivera and the Panthers are expected to try to exploit that weakness.
That may mean changing some play calls, Rivera said.
``Well, what we'll do is make sure the things that we do fit what he does best,'' Rivera said. ``You don't try to force things, and at the same time you want to try to stay as close to what you normally do and try to do it better.''
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