The Panthers have unsurprisingly struggled to rush the ball this season. There wasn’t much in the preseason indicating that they would, I mean Fozzie “Waka Waka” Whitaker was the most highly productive back for crying aloud. The first two games with Triple Trouble (DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Mike Tolbert) didn’t cause too much trouble for opposing defenses either, despite some of the sharpest running by Williams in Game 1 that we’ve seen in a while. Averaging only 87.5 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry, Carolina ranks 25th overall in rushing through the first two weeks, placing significant pressure on Carolina’s passing attack.
This may surprise those who don’t know this team all that well, given that Carolina ranked 11th overall in rushing last season. Last year’s rushing success, however, wasn’t because of the running backs or even the product of a read option scheme featuring Cam Newton. Much of that 126.6 yards per game average came on broken plays where Cam Newton emerged from the phone booth wearing the Superman cape and made a lot out of nothing. Cam was Carolina’s 2nd leading rusher, accounting for 29% of that 126.6 yds/game rushing attack. Carolina’s running game last season just wasn’t as formidable as the stats suggest. Subtract Cam’s production, and you get a running game that well looks a lot like this season’s--below average.
If there’s a week for Carolina to reestablish the run, it’s this week against the Steelers, who by all measures are even worse at defending the run. Through the first two weeks, the Steelers have allowed an embarrassing 172 yds/game and 5.0 yds/carry. These defensive difficulties are more systemic than just poor execution and tackling, but also stem for poor personnel for Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 scheme. Weaknesses at nose tackle and at outside linebacker, allows for teams to rush the ball easily between the tackles. Look for Carolina to attack this vulnerability early and often.
There is a concern that Carolina’s injured backfield, manned alone by glass figurine Jonathan Stewart, won’t be able to capitalize on this porous Steelers’ run defense. (Williams is listed as questionable, Tolbert is sore from the Fairley hit, and UDFA Darin Reeves may be activated from practice squad) Stewart, aside from a minor hamstring injury early in the preseason, has looked tough so far. Stewart has fought hard for the few yards he’s gained this season, and when healthy always proves to be an effective running back. If Rivera can overcome the nagging fear of overusing Stewart early, Carolina can exploit this Pittsburgh weakness. Look for Stewart to have a big game in the prime time spotlight Sunday, and inevitably spark a fan discussion that he is back to his 2010 form.
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