- Associated Press - Monday, October 27, 2014

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he expects running back DeAngelo Williams to play Thursday night against the New Orleans Saints with first place in the NFC South on the line.

Williams has missed six games this season due to injuries, including Carolina’s 13-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

Rivera said Monday the franchise’s all-time leading rusher informed him that he’s “ready to roll.”

Williams participated in the team’s walkthrough practice on Monday, one day after the Panthers struggled in the red zone on offense and lost to the Seahawks for the third straight year on a late Russell Wilson touchdown pass.

Rivera said he’s excited about getting Williams back on the field and pairing him with running mate Jonathan Stewart, another former first-round draft pick.

“It’ll be a nice boost,” Rivera said. “When he and Jonathan get rolling and doing the things they do that’s a huge thing for us. That could be a nice shot in the arm.”

The franchise’s all-time leading rusher had 72 yards on 14 carries in the season opener against Tampa Bay, but missed the next two games with a hamstring injury. He returned in Week 4 against Baltimore but suffered a high ankle sprain in the first half and hasn’t played since.

Stewart, who missed three games earlier this season with a knee injury, has been starting in Williams’ spot and leads the team with 217 yards rushing.

The Panthers don’t have a 100-yard rusher in a game this season other than quarterback Cam Newton, who ran for 107 yards against Cincinnati.

Carolina ranks 27th in the league in rushing.

“I think it will help a lot to complement Stew and what we’re doing with the running game,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said of Williams’ return. “When we’re running the ball effectively it’s usually those two guys. And then when Mike (Tolbert) gets back and we mix in the quarterback runs, all of that helps with tying in the whole package, including the play-action.”

The Panthers can use all of the firepower they can get right now on offense. They rank 24th in the league in points scored and total offense.

The red zone offense has been a problem all season, including on Sunday when they made three trips inside the Seattle 20 but came away with only six points against the league’s second-worst red zone defense. One drive ended when Newton and Stewart fumbled an exchange on a read option play and the Seahawks recovered.

The Panthers enter Thursday night’s game 28th in the league in red zone offense, converting just 12 of 26 possessions into touchdowns.

Tight end Greg Olsen has been Carolina’s top threat near the goal line, but Rivera said the Seahawks rolled a safety over to Olsen giving the Panther some problems. Olsen had one catch for 16 yards and no receptions inside the 20.

“When you get inside the five, you have to scratch, crawl, spit, grip, find a way,” Newton said. “And we know that, it just has to settle in when we’re in the heat of battle. We didn’t do a good job of that and it’s happened a lot since I’ve been here.”

Rivera said he doesn’t have a problem with Shula’s play-calling in the red zone, although the coordinator has been widely criticized by the fan base on local sports talk radio.

He said it’s a matter of execution.

Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin let a pass slip through his hands in the end zone and the offensive line got blown off the ball by the Seahawks on a third-and-goal run from the 1, resulting in Stewart getting tackled in the backfield for a 7-yard loss.

The Panthers (3-4-1) have only won once in their last six games, yet still lead the division by a few percentage points over the Saints because of their tie with the Bengals.

The Saints (3-4) enter the game coming off their best performance, a 44-23 home win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night.

NOTES: Rivera said the team is considering signing an offensive tackle with starters Byron Bell (elbow) and Nate Chandler (groin) both nursing injuries and facing a short week. The only backup tackle on the roster is rookie David Foucault.


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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