Scott Fowler

One player holds key to Panthers run game – but probably not who you think

The hidden key to the Carolina Panthers’ anemic rushing offense isn’t Ryan Kalil. Or Christian McCaffrey. Or Jonathan Stewart.

The key is rookie Curtis Samuel.

The problem is that defenses don’t yet take Samuel, a rookie, too seriously as a legitimate deep threat. And because of that, the defenses are stacking the line of scrimmage like it’s the Walmart entrance door on Black Friday. They are daring Cam Newton to complete a ball over the top, and so far that just hasn’t happened.

“When you look at the last two games we’ve played, we’ve faced 8- and 9-man boxes,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said, referring to the number of defenders within a few yards of the line of scrimmage on most plays.

The player the Panthers miss most on offense is Ted Ginn Jr., who scared defenses enough that an extra defensive back was almost always compelled to shade Ginn’s way when he was on the field.

Ginn scored 19 touchdowns in his three seasons at Carolina between 2013-16 (there was one desultory year in Arizona in the middle of that), and many of those were of the deep variety.

Ginn is now running deep routes for Drew Brees in New Orleans, however. And Samuel – like Ginn an Ohio State product, but a younger and cheaper version – just hasn’t shown he can catch a 40-yard deep throw against NFL defenses as of yet.

After already battling hamstring, ankle and back injuries in his very young NFL career, Samuel is playing now but has only four catches for 12 yards so far. He did force a 21-yard pass interference penalty against Philadelphia, and he had a 31-yard run on a reverse against New Orleans. That’s about it.

‘Things we are missing’

It’s unfair to lay all the blame on Samuel, of course. He’s a rookie and can’t be expected to shoulder the whole deep-ball load. But the problem is that wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess are big receivers who catch the ball well in traffic but are hardly ever going to get 5 yards behind a defender on a “go” route.

Samuel sometimes can – his pure speed is similar to Ginn’s and is essential to keep unblocked safeties away from the line of scrimmage. But he just hasn’t put it all together.

“That’s one of the things we are missing,” Rivera said about the Panthers’ lack of a deep threat. “And that’s one of the things we are hoping to get from Curtis. As Curtis Samuel continues to develop, I think you’ll see those things. I think it’s a matter of time.”

Rivera used much the same phrasing about McCaffrey – who was Carolina’s first-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft, with Samuel going in the second round. McCaffrey has been far more productive than Samuel and leads the Panthers in receptions, but explosive plays have also been lacking for a rookie who produced them by the bushel at Stanford.

‘He’s on the edge’

McCaffrey has had 75 touches on offensive plays so far this season – 38 runs and 37 receptions. He has yet to have a running play of 15 or more yards – his longest is 11 – and he has had only one reception over 20 yards.

“He’s on the edge,” Rivera said of McCaffrey’s big-play potential. “And when it happens, it’s going to come big.”

Through six games, though, McCaffrey has averaged 2.7 yards per carry and 7.9 yards per reception. Those are pedestrian numbers, especially when compared to Jacksonville rookie Leonard Fournette.

Fournette, chosen four spots ahead of McCaffrey in the 2017 draft, already has 90- and 75-yard rushing touchdowns this season and has six rushing TDs overall. By contrast, no Panthers tailback has scored on a running play all year.

“We’ve all got to get better as an entire offense,” McCaffrey said, “but we’ll get it right.”

Even with Cam Newton’s rushing numbers helping considerably, Carolina ranks only No. 22 in rushing overall in the NFL and saw its tailbacks average less than three inches per carry vs. Philadelphia. Normally under Rivera the Panthers have been a top-10 team in rushing the ball. From October 2014 to October 2016, Carolina ran the ball for at least 100 yards for 30 consecutive regular-season games – a team record and at the time the longest active streak in the NFL.

This season, though, Carolina ran for 28 yards in the victory over Detroit and 80 vs. Philadelphia (71 by Newton) the past two weeks. They have missed the 100-yard mark in three of six games overall.

“It’s very important,” McCaffrey said of rushing the ball. “We like to pride ourselves on the run game. When that gets going, our whole offense gets going.”

While Philadelphia is No. 1 in the NFL in rush defense, the Panthers’ next opponent is only 15th. Chicago (2-4) should give the Panthers (4-2) a few more opportunities to break a run into the secondary, as will center Ryan Kalil’s expected return from a neck problem.

But what would really help, more than anything else, would be for Samuel to catch a deep ball.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler

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