Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams returned to the starting lineup this week – and brought his sense of humor with him.
At the start of his first meeting with reporters since missing the past two games with a hamstring injury, Williams pulled a pair of ski goggles from his locker stall Thursday and put them on for the entirety of his 10-minute media session.
Williams’ protective eye wear was a nod to former Panthers wideout Steve Smith, who – after signing with the Baltimore Ravens a day after Carolina released him in March – encouraged fans during a radio interview to put their “goggles on cause there’s going to be blood and guts everywhere” when the teams meet in Week 4.
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“I’ve used them in the past, but it wasn’t for blood and guts,” Williams said, laughing. “It was to keep mud out of my eyes when I was on my ATV. But they’re good for multiple occasions.”
Williams didn’t indicate whether he’ll pack the goggles for Sunday’s game at M&T Bank Stadium. But the fact that Williams is making the trip to Baltimore is good news for a Panthers’ running game that is reeling from injuries and ineffectiveness.
In the two games he was sidelined, the Panthers ran for a total of 104 yards, less than the 113 rushing yards they compiled in a Week 1 win at Tampa Bay when Williams, Jonathan Stewart and fullback Mike Tolbert were all healthy.
Since then it’s been a revolving door to the training room for the running backs.
Williams’ return coincides with the losses of Tolbert, who was placed on the short-term injured reserve with a leg injury, and Stewart, who said he is week-to-week after severely spraining his right knee in the loss to Pittsburgh.
Tolbert said Williams can boost a rushing attack ranked 29th in yards per game (72.3) and average yards per carry (3.2). The Ravens are eighth in stopping the run, holding opponents to an average of 89.7 yards on the ground.
“I’m always a firm believer that a 50 percent DeAngelo is better than no DeAngelo at all. So having him at 100 percent this week is going to be a big benefit for us,” Tolbert said. “Hopefully, Jonathan will be able to go. Obviously because of my situation, I’m not going. But DeAngelo is more than capable of carrying the load.”
As for Williams’ goggles?
“He’s more than capable of being a clown, too,” Tolbert said.
Williams has been known for his wide smile almost as much as his explosive running style since the Panthers drafted him in the first round out of Memphis in 2006.
But the franchise’s career rushing leader endured a tough offseason. His mom, Sandra Hill, died in May shortly after her 53rd birthday after a lengthy battle with breast cancer.
Williams dyed some of his dreads pink to honor his mother, who was pivotal in the NFL’s use of pink equipment, apparel and field markings in October during breast cancer awareness month.
After running for 72 yards and a 5.1-yard average in the opener at Tampa Bay, Williams hurt his hamstring at practice the following week and missed the Detroit and Pittsburgh games.
“Being away for two weeks, not being out there with my teammates, it felt awful just sitting on the sideline (not) having fun out there and doing what I love to do,” Williams said. “Getting back out there, mixing it up, bringing a little energy to the huddle. It’s not like it’s lacking any, but they said when I left, the talking stopped. So I’m back now.”
After taking 30 of 42 reps during Wednesday’s practice, Williams said his workload increased Thursday. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the goal is to get Williams to Sunday without any limitations.
Rivera thought Williams had a good day Thursday.
“He finished plays like he typically does, so you feel very comfortable,” he said.
Williams said he doesn’t believe the run game is struggling. Instead, he says teams sometimes scheme to stop the run, making it difficult to pick up yards.
Plus, Williams says it’s not like the Panthers (2-1) are losing.
Williams played eight seasons with Smith, and knows how fiery his former teammate is.
And while Williams might not have used Smith’s words to describe Sunday’s game – “That sounds more like surgery when you say blood and guts” – he was more than willing to play along with the theme.
“I’m super excited. I know he’s one of those guys who’s going to go out there and give it everything he’s got,” Williams said. “I know the Baltimore Ravens as a whole team are pretty good. They’re 2-1 and they’re clicking on all cylinders, so we need to go down with our A game.”
Goggles optional, but recommended.