Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera says middle linebacker Luke Kuechly "more than likely" will miss his second straight game on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints due to a concussion.
Kuechly was listed as doubtful on the team’s injury report Friday. The linebacker was injured in the season opener against Jacksonville following a collision with running back T.J. Yeldon. The 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year hasn’t practiced since and was forced to sit out for the first time in his career last weekend, ending a streak of 49 consecutive regular-season starts.
A.J. Klein proved to be up to the task of filling in for Kuechly last week, helping the Panthers beat the Houston Texans 24-17. Klein even had an interception that set up Carolina’s final touchdown.
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The Panthers listed wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (ankle) and offensive tackle Daryl Williams as out and running backs Jonathan Stewart (knee) and Fozzy Whittaker (shoulder) and defensive end Charles Johnson (hamstring) as questionable. They are without 1,000-yard receiver Kelvin Benjamin this season because of a knee injury.
The Panthers haven’t let injuries to one of the league’s premier defensive players and their top wide receiver stop them from moving to the verge of their best start in 12 years.
The Saints, meanwhile, are winless and they won’t have Drew Brees due to injury when they visit Bank of America Stadium on Sunday.
Carolina has been competent with Klein manning Kuechly’s spot, allowing 17 points over six quarters. It yielded all of those points in last Sunday’s home opener. Cam Newton connected on a pair of touchdowns and ran for a score.
The Panthers also started 2-0 last season but followed with a 1-8-1 stretch before recovering to win their final four and a second straight NFC South title.
"We were beat up a lot more (last season). We were a younger team. There are a lot of other reasons," coach Ron Rivera said of his team’s swoon.
The Panthers have opened 3-0 three times in team history and went a team-best 5-0 in their latest such start in 2003. Their current six-game win streak in the regular season is their longest since taking a franchise-record eight in a row in 2013.
Carolina started its run with a 41-10 rout in New Orleans on Dec. 7, with Newton accounting for four touchdowns.
Brees will be sidelined with a bruised rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder. Coach Sean Payton said the velocity on Brees’ passes is not what he needs, so Luke McCown will make his first start for the Saints.
Brees was hurt on a hit in the second quarter of last Sunday’s 26-19 home loss to Tampa Bay. He never left the game, finishing 24 of 38 for 255 yards and one touchdown.
Brees hasn’t been forced to miss a start because of injury since signing with New Orleans before the 2006 season.
The Saints had a chance to send last week’s game to overtime with a drive that went to the Buccaneers’ 27-yard line with 16 seconds to go, but Brees’ final two passes fell incomplete. Receiver Willie Snead said he noticed the quarterback’s arm was hurting and he was having trouble passing deep.
The Saints, who haven’t started 0-3 since dropping their first four games in 2012, won 28-10 at Carolina on Oct. 30. Brees showed his usual efficiency, completing 70.6 percent of his passes while throwing for a score and running for another.
Newton connected on just 10 of 28 passes for a career-worst 35.7 completion rate. He went 21 of 33 (63.6 percent) in the rout at the Superdome, and Jonathan Stewart had the second-best rushing performance of his career with 155 yards, including a 69-yard touchdown.
Stewart has 118 yards in his first two games, just seven more than Newton.
"We’ve got to get after it against New Orleans," Rivera said. "They’re a good football team that’s 0-2. At the end of the day, you throw the records out because they’re a divisional opponent. They know us we know them. They’re going to come in here fired up and ready to play."
Neither Mark Ingram nor Khiry Robinson have totaled 80 yards this season for New Orleans, which is averaging 79.0 on the ground. That’s among Payton’s many concerns.
The Saints have also been docked for 17 penalties with 10 for 115 yards coming last Sunday. They also had three turnovers in that game.
"There are a number of things we’ve got to work on cleaning up and there’s a sense of urgency, obviously, to get those things corrected or we’ll have the same type of result," Payton said.