Panthers' Johnson, Williams practice

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Barring setbacks, the Carolina Panthers expect to have their sacks leader and leading rusher back from injuries when they face the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.

Defensive end Charles Johnson and running back DeAngelo Williams returned to practice Wednesday. Johnson, who has 8.5 sacks, missed the past two games with a strained right knee after being leg-whipped by New England's Marcus Cannon.

Williams, who has 610 yards rushing, missed Sunday's 27-6 victory over Tampa Bay with a quad contusion suffered against Miami.

While coach Ron Rivera said both players will be evaluated on Thursday and possibly Friday before committing them to the lineup for the NFC South showdown in New Orleans, Johnson was emphatic he would play.

"I'm feeling good,'' he said. "Knocked a little rust off, did my thing. We've got a long week of preparation, so I'm going to keep getting better every day so I can go into Sunday full speed.''

The Panthers (9-3) also could have linebacker Chase Blackburn (foot) and tight end Ben Hartsock (knee) back after each missed the past three games.

But getting Johnson and Williams back in particular is key for a team trying to extend its league-best winning streak to nine games and overtake the Saints (9-3) for the division lead with four regular-season games remaining.

While Rivera has been pleased with the play of Johnson's replacements, he said Johnson brings a bit of "savviness'' to the team.

"He has a good feel and a good understanding of who he is playing against,'' Rivera said. "It helps us defensively. The young guys may fall into a trap, but Charles is a little more savvy. He's not going to fall into those things or he may anticipate something a little bit better.''

Cannon, who was fined $15,750 for the leg-whip, apologized to Johnson immediately after the game. Johnson said he hasn't heard anything from the Patriots tackle since.

"It's all good,'' he said. "I'm on to the next one. It's an unfortunate injury. Things happen in football.''