Jonathan Stewart to return Nov. 3

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Running back Jonathan Stewart said Tuesday he expects to play for the first time this season when the Carolina Panthers face the Atlanta Falcons at home Nov. 3.

"Wow, he ruined the surprise," said coach Ron Rivera, confirming the team's plans.

Stewart received cheers earlier in the day when he returned to the practice field for the first time since injuring his right ankle in a Nov. 26 game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

He underwent offseason surgery on both ankles, spent the first six games this season on the physically unable to perform list and will remain there through Thursday night's game at Tampa Bay.

Although the Panthers (3-3) have 21 days to decide whether to activate the team's second all-time leading rusher now that he's returned to practice, Rivera indicated that will come early next week.

Stewart said it felt like he had been released from the team's jailhouse, his term for working on the sideline pulling weights like a plow horse and riding a stationary bicycle.

"It's called a jailhouse because you're in confinement dedicated to rehabilitation," said Stewart, who rushed for 1,133 yards during his second year in the league in 2009. "Now I'm back to society."

Stewart signed a five-year, $36.5 million extension in August 2012 after averaging 875 yards rushing and six touchdowns during his first four seasons.

When he returns, Stewart will split time with Mike Tolbert behind starting running back DeAngelo Williams. Rivera made it clear that Williams, who leads the team in rushing with 434 yards, will remain the "premier guy."

But Rivera said emphatically there is room in the backfield for Williams, Stewart and Tolbert, as well as rookie Kenjon Barner.

Stewart, who has 3,836 career rushing yards, is just happy to be back in any role.

"It felt good to be out there in general with the guys," he said. "The ankle feels good. I felt quick. I felt like I was myself today."