CHARLOTTE — After Carolina Panthers tailback Jonathan Stewart fumbled in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson went right back to Stewart on the Panthers' ensuing possession.
Stewart ripped off a 19-yard run on his next touch and had five 48 yards on five carries on a drive that helped seal the Panthers' 19-12 victory. Though the Panthers didn't score, they took nearly four minutes off the clock and forced the Cardinals to use all of their timeouts.
"After a couple [of] runs, I don't think they wanted to tackle Stew anymore," said Mike Goodson, the Panthers' other tailback. "He's a big guy. He pounded them and pounded them, and it opened up."
Goodson described the Panthers' running game in a nutshell this season. Carolina struggled on the ground for much of the season but kept pounding it - because that's what John Fox-coached teams do - and eventually it opened up.
"The run game is something we've been able to count on, and it wasn't as good early in the year," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "But it's been firing well."
It's been firing well since Stewart came back from a concussion and the offensive line found some stability.
In the four games since Stewart's return, the Panthers have rushed for 167.8 yards a game. In their first 10 games, the Panthers averaged just 96.4 yards on the ground.
Stewart has been the catalyst. The 137-yard effort against Arizona was Stewart's second consecutive 100-yard game, and the 5-10, 235-pounder has rushed for 460 yards on 78 carries (5.9-yard average) in the four games since he sat two weeks with a concussion.
"Running the ball is a physical part of the game, and having all cylinders click is kind of hard," Stewart said. "It's not the easiest thing in the world. It's hard to get all of the guys on the same page and doing the right things and doing their assignments and beating the man in front of you. That is what we've been doing the last few games. That helps win games."
The Panthers finished third in the NFL in rushing in 2009 as Stewart and DeAngelo Williams became the first backfield tandem in league history to each surpass the 1,100-yard rushing mark.
Stewart leads the Panthers with 668 yards this year. So unless he has huge games against playoff-bound Pittsburgh and Atlanta, he won't get to 1,000.
But Stewart and Goodson - who had back-to-back 100-yard games when Stewart and Williams were hurt - have revived the running game. In seven weeks, the Panthers have gone from 28th in the league in rushing to 12th.
"I feel like our run game has been pretty good the last month and a half or so," Gross said.
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