CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Jonathan Stewart has declared himself ready to roll.
The Panthers sixth-year running back says he's healthy enough to get back on the field Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons after missing the last 11 months with an ankle injury.
Stewart went through his first padded practice since injuring his ankle last November and says he's hoping the Panthers will allow him to suit up this week.
"I feel ready," Stewart said Wednesday with a wide smile.
Stewart would first have to be activated from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list to be eligible to play Sunday. The Panthers have until 4 p.m. EDT Saturday to make that decision.
Coach Ron Rivera wouldn't say for sure if the Panthers would activate Stewart, saying, "We'll see."
Rivera said the team is "very excited" about getting Stewart back on the field and "he will be ready if he's needed."
When pressed on the matter, Rivera leaned away from the microphones on the podium in front of him, smiled and whispered to reporters in the front row "read between the lines."
Rivera said regardless of when Stewart returns, DeAngelo Williams will remain the team's starting running back.
Williams, who turned 30 earlier this year, is on pace to rush for more than 1,000 yards and is averaging 4.2 yards per carry for the league's eighth-ranked offense. Carolina's offense is first in the NFL in time of possession.
"We've got a guy that has established himself as our premier back," Rivera said. "DeAngelo has earned that right to continue to be that guy and he will continue to be that guy."
The big trick, Rivera said, will be finding a way to keep the team's stable of running backs happy.
Along with Williams and Stewart, the Panthers' backfield also features fullback Mike Tolbert and rookie Kenjon Barner.
And oh, there's quarterback Cam Newton, who can run a little bit, too.
"The one thing we can't worry about is making sure everybody gets enough touches," Rivera said. "What has to happen is when these guys get their opportunities they have to be quality touches. We have to put them in the best position so they can have success and have quality touches. And I know they all understand that. ... We can't force things. We can't."
Rivera said offensive coordinator Mike Shula "has to continue to call his game the way he wants to call it, and at the end of the day when you get your opportunity make the best of it."
Stewart had surgery on both ankles, but the right one gave him problems for months and forced the Panthers to put him on the PUP list to start the season after he missed all of training camp.
Williams and Tolbert have carried the load in his absence.
Williams has 477 yards rushing on 114 carries and one touchdown. Tolbert has 182 yards on 51 carries and three TDs.
Williams injured his quadriceps in Carolina's 38-13 win over Tampa Bay last Thursday night and sat out practice on Wednesday allowing Stewart to get the bulk of carries.
However, Williams is expected to play against Atlanta.
Stewart has split carries in the Panthers backfield with Williams since coming into the league as a first-round pick in 2008.
Stewart's best season came in 2009 when he ran for 1,133 yards and 10 touchdowns. His numbers dropped off some over the past three seasons in part because former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski deemphasized the running game.
Shula, who replaced Chudzinski after serving two seasons as quarterbacks coach, has made a concerted effort to stick with the run this season.
"You dream about playing in the NFL all of your life and you never know when your last snap is," Stewart said. "You can take things for granted. And sitting back for a year watching guys go through OTAs, minicamp and training camp and the first few games of the season is tough. Just being back and being a part of the scheme of things is a good thing."
AP NFL website www.pro32.ap.org