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Panthers' Ron Rivera won't play Luke Kuechly if any doubt about his health

The Panthers intend to play it safe in deciding when Luke Kuechly will return from a concussion sustained in Week 1. Phil Sears/USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers will err on the side of caution when making the final decision on whether to play middle linebacker Luke Kuechly on Sunday even if the two-time Pro Bowler is cleared from the concussion protocol.

Kuechly has been in the protocol since receiving a head injury late in the first half of Sunday’s 20-9 victory at Jacksonville.

He spent the first part of Thursday’s practice working with trainer Ryan Vermillion inside, and then joined his teammates on the field as a spectator for the final portion.

The next step, according to coach Ron Rivera, is for Kuechly to participate in a non-contact practice. That will come either Friday or Saturday.

After that, Kuechly still must be cleared by an independent physician. Even if cleared, Rivera said if there is any doubt about Kuechly being ready, “We won’t play him."

“He’s chomping at the bit," Rivera said. “This is tough on him, because there’s a protocol and you have to follow it. He wants to be out there in the worst kind of way.

“It’s one of those things where we can’t let him get ahead of himself. He’s also got to be up front about everything and honest, because he wants to be on the field so bad."

A.J. Klein, who replaced Kuechly for the second half against Jacksonville, said he’s preparing for the game against Houston as though he will be the starter even though he hasn’t been told he will start.

Rivera said he will take a similar approach with Kuechly to the one he used last season with quarterback Cam Newton for the opener at Tampa Bay. Newton said he felt good enough to play with fractured ribs suffered two weeks earlier, but Rivera and the medical staff opted to sit him.

Newton wasn’t happy about the decision, but Rivera made what he considered the best decision for the long-term health of the quarterback and the team.

“When you have players like that it’s phenomenal," Rivera said. “It’s a great feeling. But you also have to be careful. Sometimes you have to save them from themselves."

Meanwhile, starting defensive tackle Star Lotulelei practiced on a limited basis for the second straight day. He said the right foot injury that forced him to miss all four preseason games and the opener felt good on Thursday.

All indications are Lotulelei will play on Sunday.

Fullback/tight end Richie Brockel (shoulder) continued to work on the side and likely will not play.