Published January 06, 2016
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera downplayed concern Wednesday over his team's patchwork secondary as the NFC's No. 1 seed begins preparing for a run at the Super Bowl.
Season-ending injuries to Charles Tillman and Bene Benwikere have left the Panthers without two of their top three cornerbacks.
That means the Panthers (15-1) will rely heavily on Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan - two players who weren't even in the league, let alone on their roster, just six weeks ago.
McClain is expected to start on the outside opposite Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman when the Panthers host a divisional playoff game on Jan. 17, while Finnegan will work inside as the nickel back.
''They're veterans, and that's the biggest thing,'' Rivera said. ''If we were talking about playing two straight-off-the-street rookies, yeah, there would be some concern.
''But these are guys that have played in some big games and have contributed to teams that have won football games, so there is a pretty good comfort level.''
Finnegan and McClain have played in a combined 199 regular season games and four postseason games.
Finnegan joined the team on Nov. 30 and McClain on Dec. 15 and together they've played a combined eight games for Carolina.
''Everybody is comfortable with them and we trust them,'' safety Kurt Coleman said. ''We aren't going to put them in positions where we don't think they can succeed. I think that is the great thing about this coaching staff - no matter who you are they put us in great positions to succeed.''
McClain potentially could see plenty of balls thrown his way in the postseason, especially with Norman considered Carolina's lockdown cornerback and one of its biggest playmakers on defense.
At 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, McClain is smaller than most cornerbacks the Panthers typically employ on the outside, but stepped up last Sunday when pressed into duty after Tillman tore the ACL in his right knee in the third quarter. McClain finished with seven tackles and intercepted Jameis Winston in a 38-10 victory over Tampa Bay.
McClain said he feels blessed knowing that just last month he wasn't on an NFL roster. He said he worked out for nine different teams before Carolina signed him to a contract.
''It was a waiting game and I was getting a little impatient,'' McClain said. ''My last workout was with Cincinnati and I was like, `Man, I'm tired of this. It's getting toward the end of the season.' But this is a great atmosphere and a great opportunity.''
This is McClain's second turn with the Panthers.
He was drafted by Carolina in 2010 by the previous front office and coaching regime, but only played one season before being released. He went on to play one season with Jacksonville and three more in Atlanta.
He signed with New England this past offseason, but was among the Patriots' final roster cuts.
McClain and Carolina's secondary will be tested if the Panthers wind up in an NFC title game against the Arizona Cardinals, the conference's No. 2 seed which features several quality receivers including Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd.
The Panthers also announced they've brought up cornerback Lou Young from the practice squad for added depth.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL