Carolina Panthers make a run despite ground-game problems

jjones@charlotteobserver.comNovember 26, 2013 

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula have said more than once this year they don’t want quarterback Cam Newton being the team’s leading rusher, but he’s been just that in the past two games.

Carolina’s running backs, meanwhile, have combined for less than 100 yards in each of the past three games.

The Panthers (8-3) have a seven-game winning streak without a dominant running game, but Rivera would still like more out of his backfield.

"We’re still rushing for 100 yards a game – I know the quarterback had to run a little more – but again, it shows that if you pile up on us, you do certain things, we have another weapon," Rivera said. “Is it disconcerting? Yeah. I’d like to see us have more success. But when we had to, we ran the ball, and we had some big runs at the right time.”

Carolina has rushed for an average of 116 yards in wins against San Francisco, New England and Miami, but take Newton from the equation and the Panthers have games of 94, 41 and 85 yards on the ground.

Those performances have come against some strong defenses.

The 49ers had the sixth-best defense in the NFL when they met the Panthers in Week 10, and Rivera pointed to Miami’s defensive front seven as being better than people think.

The Patriots have the next-to-worst rush defense in the league, but New England coach Bill Belichick is renowned for taking away what an opponent does best, especially with two weeks to prepare coming off a bye. The Patriots stacked the box with eight and sometimes nine players against the Panthers, leaving a lot of man coverage for the New England secondary but suffocating Carolina’s ground game.

“We’ve just got to be a little sharper overall in the running game, all of us,” Shula said. “You’ve got to be able to run it regardless of how defenses play us. That’s how we’ve built our offense, too, is to be able to run it when we have to run it.”

Shula said the team monitors Newton’s run calls versus scrambles, and he doesn’t mind much when the quarterback tucks the ball and picks up a first down.

Newton led the team in rushing last season with 741 yards, and though he’s on pace for a career low in carries (114) and yards (552), his 128 yards in the past three games lead the team during that span.

This year started with a renewed emphasis on the run game after former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski left to become head coach in Cleveland. Through the first three games, Williams led the team, and was third in the NFL, in rushing with 291 yards.

In Week 9, Jonathan Stewart returned from the physically unable to perform list, and Williams’ numbers began declining. In the past three games he has 91 total rushing yards on 24 carries.

In Williams’ first three games, he averaged more than 20 carries in 41 snaps per game. He has averaged eight carries in 24 snaps in the past three games.

“I will say when DeAngelo gets into a really good rhythm, we just got to keep running him,” Rivera said. “Same thing for Jonathan. When we see somebody with the hot hand we’ve got to go with it. We’ve struggled a little bit the last couple of weeks.”

The Panthers have particularly struggled with finding the hot hand early the past three weeks. Against the 49ers, three backs rushed a combined five times for 14 yards in the first quarter. Two backs rushed four times for 10 yards against the Patriots, and Sunday against the Dolphins, the three backs rushed six times for 21 yards.

Shula said he and the offensive coaching staff want to get Williams into a rhythm early, but they must straddle the line between feeding the hot hand and getting all the backs touches delicately.

“And you really just preach, hey, everyone do their job better, especially early in the games. We haven’t had as good a rhythm, whether or not it’s runs or passes, in the last couple of weeks early in the game. If you can do that and stay on the field, then those plays start to come.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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