Return of Stewart would only be good thing

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The NFL's eighth-ranked running game may be getting better soon.

The Carolina Panthers will make a decision in the next few days whether to activate running back Jonathan Stewart, the team's second all-time leading rusher, from the physically unable to perform list.

Stewart was placed on PUP before the season with team doctors concerned about his right ankle which required offseason surgery. He has missed the required six weeks, but only five games because the Panthers (2-3) had a bye in Week 4.

Now the team has three weeks to decide whether to activate Stewart for the remainder of the season. He went through one major test on Monday, and if he does well in Tuesday's test, there's a chance he could suit up for Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams (3-3).

If activated, Stewart likely would take the roster spot of left guard Amini Silatolu, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL a week ago against Arizona. That the Panthers haven't placed Silatolu on injured reserve means they're leaving their options open.

"The thing we've got to do is see how he reacts to the last couple of big workouts that we're going to put him through,'' coach Ron Rivera said of Stewart on Monday. "If he reacts well, then we can. If not, we'll wait and see.''

Rivera, who tends to lean towards the positive, said "cautious optimism is a great way to put it.''

"I am a little overly optimistic sometimes, and before I know it on Saturday morning I'm tell you guys he's not going to do it,'' Rivera said.

One thing Rivera didn't temper was his optimism on what Stewart can bring to an offense that is averaging 135.8 yards a game rushing after running for 131 yards in Sunday's 35-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

He's not worried Stewart would interrupt the chemistry that DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert already have in the backfield. He shouldn't be.

"It's interesting, because we've got a good blend going right now,'' Rivera said. "But I do know one thing [Stewart] will do. He'll help deflect some things as far as with DeAngelo out there. DeAngelo has taken most of the big carries. He's done a great job.

"With a guy like that [Stewart] who comes in as a little bit of a power inside guy, sometimes if he gets rolling he can pound, pound, pound. And then all of a sudden you've got a guy with DeAngelo's quickness and his burst, now all of a sudden he breaks a big one.''

Stewart signed a five-year, $36.5 million contract extension last season, but struggled with injuries to both ankles and finished with 333 yards and one touchdown. He underwent offseason surgery to repair the damage, but his right ankle has continued to give him problems.

When healthy, Stewart gives the Panthers two explosive options along with Williams, who has 394 yards rushing this season. His return can only be a good thing.

"I do know with Michael Tolbert in the mix as well, we'll have a very good tandem of backs, even better than what we have right now,'' Rivera said. "Cause I really like what we're doing and we want to stay along those lines.''