Looking to snap a three-game losing streak and take pressure off their struggling quarterback, the Carolina Panthers are expected to knock the dust off their highly paid pair of running backs Sunday against Dallas.
It might be necessary to re-introduce the Bank of America Stadium crowd to DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, each averaging fewer than 10 carries a game.
With Cam Newton coming off his worst NFL game in a 16-12 loss to Seattle in Week 5, coach Ron Rivera indicated the Panthers (1-4) will try to establish the run against Dallas.
“That’s one of the things we want to do is take some of that pressure off of (Newton), obviously. He puts it on himself, too. I think we can take some of it off,” Rivera said. “Getting our running game going early would be a very good thing for us.”
Newton completed 41.4 percent of his passes (12 of 29) for 141 yards – both career lows – against the Seahawks. Newton, the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011, also misfired on a fourth-and-goal from the 1 when the Panthers had a chance to take the lead late in the game.
Newton went home to Atlanta during the bye week and cleared his mind with a slate of diversions that included trips to a haunted house, a cineplex and a go-kart track. In Charlotte, Rivera watched each of his team’s five games again.
Among Rivera’s conclusions: The Panthers have been putting too much on Newton, the team’s leading rusher with 209 yards on 40 carries. Williams has 173 yards on 48 carries, the fewest by any starting running back except New Orleans’ Pierre Thomas.
Mindful of revealing too much of his game plan, Rivera said the Panthers also could use play-action passes to give Newton early confidence and soften the Cowboys’ secondary, the second-ranked pass defense in the league.
But, Rivera said, “Somewhere along the line we do have to get to our running game.”
The Panthers rushed for 219 yards in their only win – a 35-27 defeat of New Orleans in Week 2. They ran for 199 yards in Week 4 at Atlanta, when the defense gave up a big play in the final minute to allow the Falcons to pull out a win.
Veteran left tackle Jordan Gross said critics call the Panthers a finesse running team because of their reliance on the zone read. But Gross said the 6-5, 245-pound Newton is hardly a finesse runner.
Despite losing Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil to a season-ending foot injury, Gross thinks the Panthers have to emphasize the ground game.
“I love it when we run for 200 yards. And I really don’t care how it comes about,” Gross said. “But we need to run the ball for a lot of yards every game. Because that’s going to help the pass game. It’s going to help the time of possession. It’s going to keep the first downs moving.”
“I don’t expect to see a certain person getting more or less carries,” Gross added. “But we’ve definitely talked about running the ball.”
Dallas (2-3) ranks 14th in run defense, giving up 103.6 yards a game. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said the Panthers’ three-headed rushing attack – including fullback Mike Tolbert – is a challenge to defend.
“Each of those players are very good at running. They’ve had a lot of success in this league,” Garrett said. “The scheme that they run can be challenging in itself. And when you put those guys in that scheme, it really can become difficult. They have been so good running the football in so many different ways and we have to be ready for that.”
The Panthers are running out of time to salvage the season. Since 1978, only seven of 156 teams have rebounded from a 1-4 start to make the postseason, according to STATS LLC. None has won the Super Bowl.
“You look at the way things have happened, you’re disappointed obviously because of the last two games. You’ve got to start winning,” Rivera said. “Like we say, you’ve just got to keep pounding away and pounding away and it’s going to turn.”