Kuechly practices after missing last 3 games with concussion
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Luke Kuechly was back in his comfort zone Tuesday, on the football field wearing a helmet and shoulder pads.
The Panthers middle linebacker returned to practice exactly one month after suffering a concussion in the Carolina's season-opening 20-9 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Barring a setback, he's expected to start Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, although coach Ron Rivera said Kuechly may be on a ''pitch count.''
Sitting out is not Kuechly's thing.
He said before the concussion he hadn't missed a football practice - let alone a game - since his freshman year of high school.
''It's weird, you can't tape it up, you can't suck it up,'' Kuechly said of his first known career concussion. ''It's just one of those things you have to wait until it goes away. That was the most difficult part - knowing that you can't tough it out.''
The four-year pro spent four weeks in the NFL's concussion protocol and missed three games before being cleared to return. The Panthers had a bye last week.
Rivera said the team will be cautious with Kuechly in his first game back and may take him out at certain points.
While Kuechly wants to be in for every play, he said that decision doesn't bother him because he knows A.J. Klein is a solid backup. The Panthers went 3-0 with Klein filling in at middle linebacker.
But Klein doesn't have Kuechly's speed, sideline-to-sideline quickness and ability to anticipate where the ball is headed. Kuechly has more tackles the last three seasons than any other player in the league and was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2013.
''Anytime you can have your best players on the field, that is going to help you,'' Rivera said.
The Panthers need all of the help they can get against the Seahawks.
Although Seattle is 2-3 on the season, they're unbeaten at home and have defeated the Panthers four times in the past three seasons, including a 31-17 victory in the NFC divisional playoffs last season.
During the portion of practice that was open to the media, Kuechly was first up in all individual drills and hit the blocking sleds hard.
''It was great. It was like he picked up where he left off,'' Rivera said.
Kuechly said he has been conditioning on the side and still feels like he's in good football shape.
Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy isn't the least bit worried about Kuechly being rusty or out of shape after sitting out a month.
''He never shows fatigue,'' Ealy said. ''He doesn't get tired. He's like Superman. Luke don't get tired. He'll be all right.''
Kuechly was injured while making a tackle on Jaguars running back T.J. Yeldon on Sept. 13. Kuechly, a fundamental tackler, said he didn't expect Yeldon to dip when he did and that caused him to collide with him awkwardly.
Kuechly didn't blackout, but said he knew something was wrong right away and followed teammate Thomas Davis' advice to take a knee.
''It's one of those things that is hard to explain,'' Kuechly said. ''You have headaches, and stuff just isn't right - that's the best way to describe one. Sometimes you wonder when you're playing, `Do I have (a concussion)?'' Well, I knew I had one.''
Kuechly failed one test with an independent physician two weeks ago before finally being cleared to play. He said he's not worried about another concussion, confident that the time off will help him in the long run.
''It's one of things where what is the right thing to do versus what you want to do,'' Kuechly said. ''Obviously I want to play, but you understand that things need to be taken care or else you may get another one.''
NOTES: Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery practiced after missing the last two games with a high ankle sprain. ... Defensive end Jared Allen did not practice after pinching a nerve in his back in the team's Week 4 win against Tampa Bay. He said he hopes to play vs. Seattle.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL