The Carolina Panthers throttled the running attack of a team missing its top back and turned up the pressure on the quarterback.
Sacks, turnovers and a lopsided victory ensued.
The formula worked last week in the division-clinching, 34-3 win at Atlanta, and Panthers’ players are eyeing an encore performance this week in an NFC wild-card game against an Arizona team using a backfield by committee in the wake of Andre Ellington’s season-ending hernia surgery.
The Panthers sacked Matt Ryan six times after jumping out to an early lead and making the Falcons’ offense one-dimensional. Ryan’s been to two Pro Bowls.
Ryan Lindley, the Cardinals’ third-string quarterback who’s expected to start Saturday, has thrown two career touchdowns. Both came last weekend in a loss to San Francisco after Lindley began his career with an NFL-record streak of 228 passes without a touchdown.
No wonder Arizona coach Bruce Arians wants to try to get the ground game going.
“It’s the biggest part of the game for us offensively. We’ve got to establish something running the ball, especially if the weather dictates (it),” Arians said Tuesday during a conference call with Charlotte reporters.
“Anytime you are playing with a young quarterback you want to be able to run the football.”
Lindley, 25, who is 1-5 as a starter, is a household name compared to the backs lining up behind him.
The Cardinals (11-5) drafted Stepfan Taylor in the fifth round in 2013, signed Marion Grice off San Diego’s practice squad and promoted Kerwynn Williams off their practice squad two days after Ellington was hurt in a Week 13 loss at Atlanta.
In his first game after his promotion, Williams rushed for 100 yards on 19 carries against Kansas City. It’s the only 100-yard game this season for Arizona, which ranked next-to-last in the league in rushing with 81.8 yards a game during the regular season.
“Just because they haven’t had success doesn’t mean they can’t have success,” Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said. “We have to do our job so that it doesn’t happen. They’re going to come in with the mindset, I’m pretty sure, of they have to run the ball. They have a quarterback that’s still young, still learning the offense and still has a ways to go.”
With the Falcons missing starting running back Steven Jackson last week, the Panthers’ defense held backups Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman to 57 yards on 15 carries. After Carolina (7-8-1) built a big lead, the Falcons abandoned the running game.
They might as well have hung a target on the back of Ryan’s jersey.
“Last week we were able to get a lead, get some points and we were able to pin our ears back. We really got after them,” defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said. “We’d like to get them in the same situation so we can pin our ears back and play aggressive and get after them.”
The Panthers had trouble stopping the run early in the season. During a Week 3 loss to Pittsburgh, the Steelers gashed them for 264 yards, the third-most allowed by Carolina in its 20-year history.
But the Panthers held six of their final seven regular-season opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing.
Arians said the presence of Luke Kuechly, who led the league in tackles for the second time in his three-year career, makes it tough to run against the Panthers.
“They have the best middle linebacker in football to start with, and they’re not too shabby up front,” Arians said. “Star (Lotulelei) is playing outstanding. But I think as a group they understand their defense extremely well, they’re well-coached and they were obviously flying around with high intensity during that Atlanta game.”
Lotulelei, the defensive tackle taken in the first round in 2013, posted career highs with seven tackles and two sacks against the Falcons. Lotulelei knows Arizona has had issues with their run game, but says the Panthers – who rank 16th against the run – still have to be on point.
“They’ve struggled to run. But we can’t go into the game thinking that they’re just going to lay down and notrun the ball on us, but attack it just like we have every other game,” Lotulelei said.
Despite their low profile, the Cardinals’ reserve backs have done OK since Ellington went down.
Arizona rushed for 90 yards or more in three of its final four regular-season games, after reaching that threshold in just two of the previous 10 games.
Still, the Panthers’ defensive game plan will look a lot like it did last week, according to their head coach.
“You try to put them in a position where they are one-dimensional,” Ron Rivera said. “You’ve got to do that a couple ways. You’ve got to be able to put points on the board and you’ve got to be able to stop their running game. That’s the only way you can do it. So we’ll see.”