CHARLOTTE, N.C. — While Panthers coach Ron Rivera is awaiting the results of an MRI on running back Jonathan Stewart’s right hamstring, Fozzy Whittaker is ready to roll for Carolina.
Rivera said the initial indications on Stewart are not good.
“If it’s a hamstring — and every indication is that it is — it’s going to be at least a week or two,” Rivera said. “We’ll see how severe.”
The Panthers won’t announce the extent of Stewart’s injury until Wednesday when they return to practice..
Stewart injured his hamstring in the first quarter of Carolina’s 47-26 win over San Francisco on Sunday. He did not return, finishing with 9 yards rushing on five carries.
Whittaker, who ran for 100 yards on 16 carries in the win, is expected to start Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings even though he is viewed as more of a change-of-pace back. Rivera said Cameron Artis-Payne, who is more of a straight-ahead power back, will see plenty of action, too. Artis-Payne was inactive the last two games for Carolina (1-1).
Rivera said that while anything is possible, he did not sound as though the team would bring in a running back from outside the organization.
“We feel good about the combination of guys that we have,” Rivera said.
The 27-year-old Whittaker is just looking to help out where he can.
“I never want to see my own teammate, Jonathan Stewart, go down. I hope he heals up fast,” Whittaker said. “We always have the next man up mentality. When my number is called, I’m just trying to help produce and get the team a win.”
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was impressed with Whittaker, saying after the game that he “picked up the rifle and kept shooting.”
Prior to Sunday, Whittaker’s career-high was 41 yards rushing back, that coming back in 2014 against the Atlanta Falcons.
He’s been mostly used as a third-down back since coming into the league as an undrafted free agent out of Texas in 2012. He has nearly had as many yards receiving (279) as he has rushing (332) coming into the season.
At 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds, there is some question whether Whittaker will be able to handle the pounding that comes with being an every-down back in the league. Prior to Sunday he’d never carried the ball more than nine times in a game so it’s unlikely he’ll get 19 touches per game like he did on Sunday.
But he may not have to in Carolina.
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said if Stewart is out the strategy will be to “mix it up,” sharing carries between Whittaker, Artis-Payne and fullback Mike Tolbert.
“And we got that other guy back there, too,” Shula said with a coy smile, referring to Newton, who has more TDs rushing than any quarterback in NFL history.
Whittaker said he was excited about his performance and the victory, but also a little upset at himself over a fumble in San Francisco territory that may have cost his team points.
“That’s something I need to correct,” Whittaker said. “Being able to protect the ball whenever we play other teams in the future, that can come back to bite us in the butt.”
Whittaker and Artis-Payne both have good hands, although it’s clear Rivera views Whittaker as more of a receiver than Artis-Payne. Whittaker had 31 yards receiving on three catches against the 49ers.
NOTES: Stewart wasn’t the only Carolina player to injure his hamstring. Backup safety Dean Marlowe, who has been plagued by hamstring problems since the preseason, re-injured himself in his first action of the season against the 49ers. It’s possible the injury could force the Panthers could make a roster move at safety.