The Carolina Panthers’ already hurting rushing attack took two more hits Sunday night.
Fullback Mike Tolbert and running back Jonathan Stewart are both sidelined with leg injuries sustained in the second half of the Panthers’ 37-19 loss to Pittsburgh.
Tolbert has a hairline fracture/bone bruise in his left leg below his knee and is expected to miss at least a month. Stewart has a severely sprained right knee.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the team would reassess Stewart on Friday. But considering Stewart was out five weeks last year with a torn ligament in the same knee, he could end up missing significant time, as well.
That means the Panthers’ could be without their top three running backs for this week’s game at Baltimore, although Rivera is hopeful DeAngelo Williams will be able to practice this week.
Williams, the franchise’s all-time rushing leader, has missed the past two games with a hamstring issue.
The Panthers have invested heavily in their running backs, particularly Williams and Stewart.
Williams signed a five-year, $43 million contract extension in 2011, with $21 million guaranteed. A year later, Stewart was re-signed for six years at $37.8 million, with $23 million guaranteed.
And although Williams took a big pay cut last year, the backfield trio of Williams, Stewart and Tolbert has a combined salary cap figure of $14 million this year.
That’s a lot of money for the Panthers to have the league’s 29th-ranked rushing offense. Through three games, the Panthers are averaging 72.3 yards a game, well off their average of 126.6 rushing yards a game last season, when they ranked 11th.
In the loss to Pittsburgh, the Panthers had a franchise-low 10 carries as offensive coordinator Mike Shula abandoned the running attack after a couple of three-and-outs in the first half.
“We can’t expect to win many games running the ball 10 times. I want to say that for sure,” Shula said Monday. “We’re going to have to run the ball and have real good balance, better than we had (Sunday) night.”
To be fair, the run game woes are not just a running back problem.
The Panthers have a rebuilt offensive line featuring three starters at new positions, including the entire right side.
But arguably the biggest difference in the run game has been the health of quarterback Cam Newton, who has not been a running threat following offseason ankle surgery.
Directing the read-option offense, Newton was the epitome of a dual-threat quarterback until his ankle surgery. Newton posted 13,331 combined rushing and passing yards from 2011-13, the most in NFL history over a player’s first three seasons.
But Newton had a career-low two carries in the loss to the Steelers, a week after matching his previous career low with four rushes in a win against Detroit.
The Panthers did not call one zone-read run against Pittsburgh, although Shula says he plans to gradually work Newton back into the running attack.
“We’re going to keep watching and monitoring him and keep working to where we can work him into more of the running game, and pick and choose our spots,” Shula said. “It’s one of the best things he does. He’s really good at it. Just because he’s a little bit beat-up doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to eliminate him running the football. But we also have to be smart about it.”
In the meantime, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the offensive staff has to figure out a way to move the ball on the ground.
“A little bit has to do obviously with our quarterback’s situation. We know that he’s a big part of what we do, and the thing this shows us is we just can’t rely on him all the time,” Rivera said. “So now we’ve got to find other answers and other ways to do that.”
The Panthers are trying to keep Newton healthy behind an offensive line that lost three veterans when left tackle Jordan Gross and guards Travelle Wharton and Geoff Hangartner retired during the offseason.
Shula said a few bumps in the road were to be expected.
“It’s a new offensive line that’s growing together. I think we’re going to get better every week,” he said. “We’ve got younger guys playing new positions than we had last year.”
They may have some new running backs, too. In addition to Tolbert and Stewart, fourth-string back Fozzy Whittaker (strained quadriceps) is also hurt.
That leaves Darrin Reaves, who was activated from the practice squad last week, and Lache Seastrunk, who was signed to the practice squad last week, as the only healthy options behind Williams on the roster.
Rivera indicated the Panthers would evaluate free agent options.
Despite the spate of injuries, Shula said he’s committed to establishing the run.
“If there’s a guy back there that’s a running back, we’re going to run the ball,” he said.
Byron Bell, who shifted from right tackle to Gross’ former spot, said getting the running game in gear is more of a mindset than anything else.
“We’re going to have to change our attitude. Running the football ain’t nothing but attitude,” Bell said. “We got to get the snot bubbles going. We’ve got to fit up on our guys and stay on ‘em. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”