Where did the Carolina Panthers’ run game go?
In the season’s first seven weeks, the Panthers averaged 123.9 yards per game.
In the past three weeks? Just 69.3 yards per game, and they haven’t passed the 100 yards-rushing mark.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of the run-game slump was last week against New Orleans, when Carolina managed just 50 yards on the ground against a rush defense that was inconsistent at best and had allowed an average of 107.9 yards per game. In fact, the first time the Panthers played the Saints (a 41-38 loss), Carolina rushed for 103 yards and quarterback Cam Newton also passed for 303 yards.
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“Well, we need to be better (in the run). Just like really everything on the offense,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said Monday. “And our guys know that.”
Shula also emphasized playing to counteract the opposing defensive scheme, as Los Angeles, Kansas City and New Orleans stacked players along the line, daring Newton to throw. Running back Fozzy Whittaker said the team takes it as a compliment to Jonathan Stewart’s ability as a running back when they see the line stacked.
Stewart’s carries have not fluctuated much in the past three weeks, despite teams’ schemes against him. Since his return from a hamstring injury in Week 6 (he had 25 carries for 95 yards, under 4 yards-averaged per carry), he carried the ball 15 times against a physical Los Angeles front for 42 yards, 13 times against an often six-man box brought by Kansas City for 39 yards, and 18 times against New Orleans for 31 yards.
Stewart is averaging a career-low 3.3 yards per carry. He has scored one rushing touchdown in three games (he has five total). He has rested often during team practices and worked with trainers on the side, but Whittaker said earlier this month that “that’s just Stew,” and that the team knew he was “ready to go on game day.” No injury has been listed since he returned to the lineup.
Likely factoring in Carolina’s inconsistent run game has been injuries to offensive linemen. Starting center Ryan Kalil was out for 2 1/2 of the team’s past three games with a sprained shoulder, and backup Gino Gradkowski replaced him despite a knee issue that put him on either the “limited” or “did not practice” list for almost two weeks.
Gradkowski was inactive Thursday against the Saints because of his knee injury and Kalil started, but backup-to-the-backup Chris Scott played after Kalil left the game in the second half.
Stewart carried eight times, gained just 13 yards and lost eight during that time.
In addition, right tackle Mike Remmers has shifted to left tackle in Michael Oher’s long absence in concussion protocol while backup Daryl Williams has stepped into Remmers’ place.
“Well, ideally you try to keep the same guys in there. But that’s football,” Shula said. “But, you know, we’re all professionals. And we’re all expected to produce as coaches. So, we feel like we’re not far off on some of the things. Sometimes the flow of the game dictates certain things, as we’ve all probably said and heard before.
“But yeah, when we get our run game going, that’s when we’re definitely at our best.”
It becomes ever more crucial to do so this week against the streaking Oakland Raiders, who Carolina visits Sunday. Oakland has won its past four games but has a weak spot where the Panthers could find opportunity: The Raiders have allowed more than 100 rushing yards to seven of 10 teams played this season, and nine total rushing touchdowns (tied for 17th in the league).