Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart spent the latter portions of last week’s loss at New Orleans watching from the sideline, the forgotten man in the team’s new-look offense.
But Stewart had a big hand in Sunday’s stirring 31-24 victory over Minnesota – from his 60-yard touchdown run on the Panthers’ third offense play, which he capped with a bit of dramatic flair, to three smash-mouth runs in the fourth quarter that were more in line with Stewart’s old-school style.
Stewart’s final run – a 1-yard, up-and-over touchdown dive – provided the winning margin and served notice that Stewart was back after his one-week sabbatical – not that he or his teammates viewed it as such.
“I don’t think it’s anything like that. I just think last week our game plan was just a little different,” said Stewart, whose only carry after halftime against the Saints came on Carolina’s first possession of the second half. “I don’t think anyone in the locker (room) is looking to be validated.”
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But Stewart has followed a couple of so-so games (or worse) with 100-yard, bounce-back games.
The Panthers’ all-time rushing leader lost two fumbles in a November victory over Atlanta, but came back nine days later with a 110-yard effort vs. Miami.
Stewart didn’t necessarily do anything egregious against the Saints last week. He just didn’t do much of anything in the second half but stand on the sideline.
His activity level was a tad higher against the Vikings.
Stewart ran 16 times for 103 yards and set a career high with three rushing touchdowns, becoming the first Panthers’ player to pull a TD triple since Mike Tolbert at New Orleans in 2012.
Stewart joined Mike Gillislee and Mark Ingram as the only NFL players to post three rushing TDs in a game this season. That’s a pretty solid day for a 30-year-old back whom some fans and media members were ready to put on the DeAngelo Williams Express out of Charlotte earlier this season.
“I know when running backs get older people like to start pushing them out the door,” Panthers center Ryan Kalil said. “For him to run that far and score … is huge for him. It’s huge for us. It’s a big confidence-booster for the offense.”
Stewart’s 60-yard thunderbolt came on a third-and-1 at the Panthers’ 40. Carolina used an unbalanced line, with left tackle Matt Kalil and extra lineman Taylor Moton both lined up on the right side.
It was a basic power run, with the entire right side blocking down and fullback Ed Dickson and pulling left guard Andrew Norwell kicking out the Vikings’ end-of-line defenders.
Quarterback Cam Newton has the option of checking out of the play. But with 10 Vikings near the line of scrimmage and only free safety Andrew Sendejo lined deep, Newton kept the play on.
When Sendejo followed Newton, who carried out his bootleg fake, and Matt Kalil, Norwell, Dickson, et al., creating a wide seam, Stewart was presented with that rare running play in which he didn’t have to try to run anyone over.
“When they’re loaded up in the box like that, all you’ve got to do is make sure guys have a hat (helmet) on someone,” Stewart said. “I just expect to break a couple tackles here and there to pop one. But I didn’t have to do anything on that. Just had to run fast.”
On his clear path to the end zone, Stewart peeked at the videoboard and – barely seeing anyone else in the frame – decided he’d break out the celebration he’d been saving after seeing DeSean Jackson do it a few years ago.
Stewart paused at the goal line, turned around and Nestea-plunged into the end zone.
“When I looked at the Jumbotron there I saw I had a nice little lead (and thought), ‘Oh, this is the time,’” Stewart recalled.
But Stewart was just getting warmed up.
Stewart fought his way through a scrum – with a little help from Matt Kalil – for a 1-yard touchdown early in the second quarter.
Stewart’s early scores helped the Panthers build a 24-13 lead midway through the third quarter. But then the offense put it on autopilot, the defense gave up a couple of big plays and suddenly it was a 24-all game with about three minutes left.
This time it was Newton’s turn to break off a big run – a 62-yarder on a zone-read that gave the Panthers a first-and-goal at the Vikings’ 8 at the two-minute warning.
Stewart took it from there, slamming into the line for 3 yards, 4 yards and then his 1-yard dive to send the Vikings to their first loss in a nine-game span.
With Stewart and Newton providing the big chunks, the Panthers finished with 216 rushing yards against the league’s second-ranked rushing defense.
Stewart, whose 16 career 100-yard rushing games are two behind Williams’ franchise mark, might have put a flourish on his long run, but he wasn’t interested in feeding any type of redemption storyline.
With three regular-season games to play and the Panthers right in the middle of a jumbled NFC playoff picture, there is more work to be done, more celebrations to trot out.
“It’s where you want to be. Point blank,” Stewart said. “That’s why we play the game.”