You betcha Jonathan Stewart was going to celebrate this one.
On the Carolina Panthers’ first offensive possession on Sunday, an eventual 31-24 win over the Minnesota Vikings, quarterback Cam Newton and the rest of the offense faced a third-and-1 from near midfield. With any plethora of plays to call in that situation, the team picked a jumbo set, piling in large bodies and prepping for a grinding run up the middle. Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers’ 5-foot-11, 235-pound bruiser of a running back, was the man tasked with picking up that tough yard.
And he did ... plus another 59 after it.
Because instead of bowling into a clump of purple-and-white jerseys, Stewart ran untouched through all of them and into the end zone for the touchdown. It was his third straight game with a rushing score, and the 60-yard run was his longest since a 2014 game against the New Orleans Saints (which was similar but went for 69 yards).
So... how did Stewart run through untouched?
“They came out and they popped us with a long run. Sometimes that happens,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “It ain’t no magical question, no magical answer for it.
“He popped a long run, somebody got out of their gap, and he hit the long run.”
Another part of the play: Once Stewart got past the initial defensive line, there should have been a safety there to stop him, or at least slow him down.
And while technically Andrew Sendejo was there, he got sucked up just enough by Newton running out the handoff that he couldn’t recover and get back to Stewart.
“Sometimes he keeps it, sometimes he doesn’t,” Sendejo said, “and yeah, he didn’t keep it on that one.”
Instead, Newton gave it to Stewart, who ran and ran before stopping at the goal line and falling backwards in celebration. It was his first of three scores on Sunday.
But Stewart’s long run wasn’t the only one of the day for the Panthers. After letting an 11-point fourth quarter lead disappear, Carolina had just over three minutes to march the length of the field and break the tie. Facing second-and-5 from deep in their own territory, the Panthers needed another of those long runs to salvage the victory.
This time it came from Newton, who found a crease in the middle and took off. He zigged and zagged for 62 yards, dodging defenders all the way, until finally he got dropped from behind by a Vikings defender. Afterward, Newton said it was a zone read and his decision to keep the ball was just a feeling he developed.
And even though Newton didn’t make it into the end zone, it put Stewart in position to, which he did several plays later for the game-winning score.
As for how the defensive line gave up a second massive run, this time with the clock winding down?
Well ... the second time around, the Vikings didn’t really have an answer.
“He got loose,” Griffen said. “We’ve gotta see where it came from.”