The Carolina Panthers’ backfield has come full circle: The Panthers began the season without Jonathan Stewart and could be ending it without him, too.
Stewart started the year on the physically unable to perform list after offseason surgeries on both ankles. He returned in November and played in six games before spraining the MCL in his right knee last week against New Orleans.
Stewart is out at least until the regular-season finale Dec. 29 at Atlanta and possibly longer.
What does that mean for the Panthers’ ninth-ranked rushing attack?
“A lot more work for me and DeAngelo (Williams),” fullback Mike Tolbert said Thursday. “We did it for the first six, seven weeks of the season. So we know what we’ve got to do to stay ready.”
Quarterback Cam Newton has been the Panthers’ most effective runner the past month. Before the loss to the Saints, Newton had tied an NFL record among quarterbacks by leading his team in rushing three consecutive games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Newton rushed for 48 yards against the Saints, finishing just behind Williams (52) for team rushing honors.
But it will be interesting to see how Williams, a rhythm back who thrives under a heavier workload, responds without Stewart.
Williams, the franchise’s career rushing leader, finished the 2012 season with a flourish while Stewart was sidelined with the ankle problems. Williams was off to a strong start this season, but his productivity dipped after Stewart’s return from the PUP list.
In the seven games Stewart was out, Williams averaged 16.3 carries and 68.1 yards a game, with 4.2 yards a carry. In five games with Stewart in the lineup (Williams missed the Tampa Bay game with a quad injury), Williams averaged 9.8 carries and 37 yards a game, with 3.8 yards a carry.
But Williams said he’s more concerned about the win-loss column than his rushing numbers.
“It kind of goes back to how we started the season (without Stewart),” Williams said. “If it all equates to wins, then by all means let’s do it.
“It’s all about winning football here. We’re not trying to lead every statistical category. We just want to win football games and make it to that ultimate goal of going to the Super Bowl and winning it.”
Williams said it helps to get a feel for the play calls and the blocks of his linemen when he’s in the game for extended periods.
“The hits that you take and the cuts that you make and the things that you see are all things of muscle memory,” he said. “So you give me that play three times in a row, the first play may go for 5, the second play may go for 3 and then the third play may go for 15, 20. Because it’s all muscle memory.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said there are certain situations where a back gets in a rhythm “and other situations where a guy may carry the ball six-seven times and average 6-7 yards a carry.”
“You’d like to find that happy medium,” Rivera added.
The Panthers have not had a 100-yard rusher since Williams ran for 120 yards on 23 carries in a 38-0 win against the New York Giants in Week 3.
The Jets, who come to Charlotte this weekend, have the league’s second-best rushing defense, allowing 82.6 yards a game to rank behind only the Panthers (79.4). But Oakland’s Marcel Reese ran for 123 yards on 19 carries against the Jets last week, highlighted by a 63-yard touchdown.
Tolbert said the Jets have a lot of complementary parts that make them effective against the run.
“They’ve got big guys up front that keep the offensive linemen off of the linebackers so their linebackers make a lot of plays,” Tolbert said. “They have talent – Ed Reed, Dawan Landry in the backfield. So they’ve got safeties that can fill the box and linebackers that can run sideline to sideline.”
Added Williams: “They fly around to the ball and do a lot of things up front to try to disrupt you on offense. We’ll see how it shakes out.”
Williams and Tolbert have each played in one playoff game during their careers. Williams had 12 carries for 63 yards in the divisional round loss to Arizona five years ago, while Tolbert – then with San Diego – caught one pass in a loss to the Jets after the 2009 season.
Both said they’re willing to share carries as long as the Panthers (9-4) keep winning.
“We’re right there in the middle of things. We control our own destiny,” Williams said. “Each game is a one-game playoff for us leading up to the playoffs.”
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