Panthers optimistic on Jonathan Stewart

BRADENTON, Fla. -- It sounds as if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could be the first defense to face Carolina’s three-pronged backfield.

Coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday he is optimistic Jonathan Stewart, who was sidelined at the end of the preseason with an ankle injury, will be ready for Sunday’s regular-season opener.

“Jonathan didn’t practice as far as the team stuff was concerned,’’ Rivera said after the Panthers worked out at IMG Academy. “We had him out on the side working with [trainers]. We had him cutting, running and bursting on it. Once he finished that, they took him to the pool to get some conditioning. We’ll see how he is tomorrow and based on how he is we’ll add on or decrease what he does and, hopefully, by Friday we’ll have definitive [word] on where he is.’’

The Panthers signed Stewart to a five-year contract extension in training camp to prevent him from leaving as a free agent next year. That surprised many because there was speculation this year’s signing of Mike Tolbert was made to help ease the blow of the eventual loss of Stewart. But the Panthers have said all along they wanted a diverse backfield.

They have one with DeAngelo Williams and Stewart, who each have had 1,000-yard rushing seasons and can catch the ball out of the backfield. Tolbert is listed as a fullback, but the Panthers say he’ll also get some time at tailback.

The Panthers have been coy about how exactly they plan to split the workload among the three. But the Bucs will find out Sunday.