NFL: Panthers runners excite team

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 25, 2008

By Mike Cranston
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó Sure, it was only a preseason game, and it came against a listless defense that seemed to check out once its star defensive end limped off the field.
But the dominating performance Saturday night by running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart gave the Carolina Panthers hope their offseason moves to reshape the offense will be a hit.
“I think as a team we showcased what we can do throughout the whole season,” Stewart said.
Stewart (10 carries, 100 yards) and Williams (nine carries, 101 yards) ran through giant holes opened by the mammoth, new-look offensive line. Stewart had a 50-yard touchdown run, only to be upstaged by Williams’ 60-yard TD run on the next possession as the Panthers built a 34-0 halftime lead against the Redskins’ first-team defense.
“When I’m out of there or I’m in there you really can’t tell,” Williams said after the 47-3 win. “The only thing that changes is the jersey number, 28 and 34. You know it keeps the defense on their heels, not only in the running game but in the passing game as well.”
Williams, Carolina’s first-round pick in 2006, and Stewart, the 13th overall pick this year, both made arguments to start. But after running roughshod over a Redskins’ defense reeling after Jason Taylor left with a second-quarter knee injury, the Panthers were insisting there will be enough work to keep both backs happy.
“Without a doubt. And when you have two guys that can run like they can, that’s better for their bodies over the course of a season,” quarterback Jake Delhomme said. “You have to have a couple of guys. Certainly not every game is going to be like that, I know that. But if you can have two guys who can pound it and really hit it and have that breakaway ability, it can only do wonders.”
The Panthers (2-1) have looked dominant running the ball in two of their three preseason games. Williams had two TD runs in the first four minutes in the opener at Indianapolis. After doing little in a driving rainstorm in Philadelphia, Williams darted through giant holes against Washington.
And this time, Stewart contributed in his first action with the first team following his slow recovery from offseason surgery.
“It gives me a lot of confidence, just to know that coming off of toe surgery and everything is going well,” said Stewart, who rushed for a school-record 1,722 yards at Oregon last season. “Everything is starting to roll.”
Stewart marveled at how he just had to make one cut to the outside on his long touchdown run thanks to the wide lanes opened by the overhauled offensive line. The Panthers in the offseason released two starters, traded away next year’s first-round pick to draft tackle Jeff Otah and moved two others to different positions.
Only new center Ryan Kalil is smaller than 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, and the extra beef has paid off ó so far.
“We’re much better up front than we’ve been in a while,” Delhomme said.
It wasn’t a perfect night. Delhomme was sacked early and threw an interception. But after the running game became dominant, Delhomme had plenty of time to throw two touchdown passes.
Lined up next to each other, Williams (5-9, 217 pounds) and Stewart (5-10, 235) look almost identical. Stewart is the more bruising back and better able to break tackles, while Williams would appear to have more big-play ability.
The Panthers are hoping the Stewart-Williams combination can finally give the Panthers a consistent running game missing since Stephen Davis rushed for a team-record 1,444 yards in the 2003 Super Bowl season.
“We’ve wanted to be able to run the ball for some time,” coach John Fox said.
With Thursday’s preseason finale against Pittsburgh likely to include only a series or two for the first-team, Saturday was the final chance to see extended time for the first-team offense before the season opener Sept. 7 at San Diego.
The dominance created plenty of optimism.
“That’s just a testament to the offensive line and a fullback in Brad Hoover working hard and us running backs working hard,” Williams said. “We’re just a cohesive group and like I’ve said all along, we gelled a lot faster this year than we did the past two years.”