Jonathan Stewart: 'I feel ready'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers haven't activated Jonathan Stewart from the physically unable to perform list, but the team's second all-time leading rusher remains on target to play in Sunday's NFC South game against the Atlanta Falcons.

"Yeah, he looked good,'' coach Ron Rivera said after Wednesday's practice, the first time Stewart has been in full pads since injuring his right ankle in November.

The Panthers have until Saturday to activate Stewart, but from what Rivera and players said, it would be more of a shock if Stewart wasn't in the lineup.

"I feel ready,'' Stewart said. "Today was a good step forward, putting the pads on. It felt good going out there and hitting the field full speed with some contact and running plays with contact.

"It's different going from running sprints and pulling sleds, even just walkthroughs half speed here or half speed there. Today was a good step. It was fun. It was good to be back out there in the huddle, and everything feels good right now."

Stewart, who had offseason surgery on both ankles, took the majority of the snaps at tailback with starter DeAngelo Williams (quadriceps) held out for precautionary reasons.

"He looked amazing,'' said rookie running back Kenjon Barner, like Stewart a former Oregon standout. "That's a big man moving and he was moving well.''

Stewart's first play in practice was a "20 ISO'' behind fullback Mike Tolbert.

"Just the progress that has been made, especially the last two months and being out there with the guys ... being back there with Mike in front of you, it calms you down,'' Stewart said.

Said Tolbert, "He looked good. He looked real good. I'm excited the way he looked.''

Stewart took a few hits, but none from cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.

"Oh no. I wasn't going to touch him,'' Munnerlyn said with a smile. "He's got a lot of aggression going on right now. He's ready to hit somebody right now. ... He made some cuts. Some people thugged him up here and there.

"Oh, man, he looked great in practice. He looked ready. I'm excited to see him get out there and play.''

Nobody was more excited than Rivera, who will have a full stable of running backs for the first time this season with a team that has won three straight and four of its last five games to improve to 4-3.

"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.''

Rivera repeated for the second straight week that Williams, who ranks eighth in the NFL in rushing with 477 yards, will remain the starter and that Tolbert will continue to get his share of the carries.

"We can't force things,'' he said. "We can't. What we've got to do is Mike [Shula, offensive coordinator] 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.''

But there is little doubt Stewart, who has 3,836 career rushing yards (Williams has a franchise-high 6,261), will get his opportunity against the Falcons (2-5).

"He just looked fast,'' Rivera said. "Fresh legs. Seriously, he looked good. He made some really nice cuts. So it's exciting. It really is.''

Johnson update: Rivera said defensive end Charles Johnson, who suffered a mild groin pull against Tampa Bay, was held out of Wednesday's practice for precautionary reasons.