NFL: Panthers can run, too
By Steve Reed
CHARLOTTE — The pass-first Carolina Panthers have been surprisingly effective moving the ball on the ground.
Behind a three-pronged attack led by running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and mobile rookie quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers rank sixth in the league in rushing and second in yards per carry (5.1).
Not bad for a team that has called nearly twice as many passes as runs.
Although none of Carolina’s trio ranks in the top 25 in the NFL in rushing individually, together they’ve put up some solid numbers combining for a league-high 15 rushing touchdowns entering Sunday’s game at slumping Tampa Bay (4-7). The recent success on the ground, including 201 yards last week against Indianapolis, has given offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinksi the overall balance he wants.
Chudzinski, who was hired by new coach Ron Rivera because of his knowledge of how to execute a downfield passing game, said early on in the season teams were daring Newton to throw the ball. So the Panthers took advantage of that and the numbers reflected that with Newton throwing for 874 yards his first two games.
Since then the Panthers have rattled off nine straight 100-yard rushing games, including a season-high 201-yard effort in a 27-19 win last week at Indianapolis.
Chudzinski said it took time to get to know his personnel and where they’re most effective.
He seems to have figured it out.
“Each game presents different opportunities and different challenges,” Chudzinski said. “We’re trying to build an offense that’s flexible enough that it can win games in different ways, whether that’s running or throwing, whether it’s a high-scoring game or a low-scoring game.”
Still, coach Ron Rivera regularly finds himself defending the team’s offensive approach.
That might be because the team gave Williams a five-year, $43 million contract this offseason, raising the expectation that he’d be the team’s bell cow running back. But Williams has been a small cog in grand scheme of the offense, carrying the ball just 108 times for 540 yards with three touchdowns, two of those coming against the Colts.
Stewart, perhaps the best backup in the league, has been used even less as a runner — 93 carries for 442 yards and two touchdowns — although he’s been solid contributor as a receiver with 36 catches.
One of the reasons why both players’ numbers are down is because the coaching staff decided long ago to take advantage of Newton’s skill set, particularly in the red zone where he has 10 touchdowns.
Rivera scoffed at the idea that Williams has been underutilized.
“You’ve got to look at why,” Rivera said. “Well, because you’ve got Jonathan Stewart. Because you’ve got a quarterback that’s going to account for a number of runs.
“We ran the ball 35 times (against the Colts), so the running game’s not being under-utilized. I think the thing you need to understand is how we run the ball, what is our offense about? Then you look at the catches, and you look at the fact that six different guys caught balls (Sunday). And (Stewart) caught three of them. So underutilizing, I don’t think so.”
Newton has carried the ball 86 times, more than any quarterback in the league including Denver’s Tim Tebow.
But that doesn’t mean the quarterback option will become a staple of the Panthers offense, although the Panthers will run it from time to time.
“It’s a funny mixed bag because when you get into a situation where you’re down, that offense becomes ineffective,” Rivera said. “So it has to be a mix. I think there’s a lot being made of the situation, but I think Denver is playing very good defense. Because they keep it close they’re able to use that… I think if you put some points up against a team like that the option does become ineffective.”
As for Newton, he’s quickly approaching Steve Grogan’s NFL record of 12 rushing touchdowns by a quarterback set in 1976.
But that name means nothing to Newton.
“Back in the ‘70s,” Newton said. “No, I don’t (know him). Don’t know anything about him.”
NOTES: The Panthers cut offensive lineman Reggie Wells for the second time this season. They’ve yet to fill his roster spot. .. The Panthers signed offensive lineman Garrett Chisolm and running back Kory Sheets to the practice squad. … Kealoha Pilares, who has kickoff returns of 101 and 76 yards the past two weeks, missed practice with a sore calf and Rivera said there is “some concern” about his status for Sunday against Tampa Bay. Linebacker Jason Phillips (calf) also sat out practice. … The Panthers had won 11 of 14 games against the Bucs prior to getting swept last season.