The Carolina Panthers will live and die this season on how well they run the football.
Last week in Tampa Bay, Carolina ran the ball 13 times and amassed just 10 yards. The Panthers lost.
Sunday, as the Panthers hosted the New Orleans Saints, the Carolina run game got going for 219 yards on 41 carries. The Panthers beat the Saints, 35-27.
It’s not quite so simple as run well and the Panthers win, but 219 yards on the ground Sunday resulted in a far better outcome than 10 yards total in Week 1.
Cam Newton led the attack with 71 yards on 13 carries. DeAngelo Williams—who carried the ball six times and lost a yard last week—carried the ball 14 times for 69 yards, and Jonathan Stewart—who did not play in Week 1—gained 51 yards on 11 carries.
Fullback Mike Tolbert only carried the ball twice for three yards, but scored a touchdown. In fact, all three running backs scored touchdowns on the day, and Newton added a fourth.
The Panthers were clicking in the run game, but there were other areas of the offense that worked very well Sunday.
Only three times last year did Newton complete more than 70 percent of his passes, and he finished his rookie season with a 60 percent completion rate. Sunday, Newton went 14-for-20, the 70 percent completion rate the fourth-best of his young career.
Better yet, Newton limited mistakes by not throwing an interception on his way to a 129.2 quarterback rating.
Steve Smith caught three passes and gained 104 yards, but Sunday was a coming-out party for third-year receiver Brandon LaFell.
LaFell matched a career high with six receptions, and his 90 receiving yards were his third-best since joining the team from LSU in 2010.
The Panthers have been in dire need of a more-than-capable wide receiver option after Smith on the depth chart. And even though the way the offseason played out—David Gettis’ inability to return from injury and Legedu Naanee’s bolting from the team—forced the Panthers to lock LaFell in at WR2, LaFell’s on-the-field performances thus far are showing that he’s ready to step up and take some of the pressure off Smith.
When defenses are forced to focus on LaFell, as well as Smith, good things tend to happen. Smith’s biggest reception of the game Sunday was a 66-yard catch where his defender mistakenly left him to cover Louis Murphy. With Murphy doubled, Smith was wide open.
The reason why Smith and Murphy were in single coverage with no help is because LaFell was on the opposite side of the field being tended to by the Saints. If the Saints weren’t worried about LaFell, there may have been help on Smith’s side.
But since there wasn’t—and might continue not to be if LaFell can keep breaking off six-catch days—Smith went for a big gain.
The Panthers had a much improved offensive day in Week 2, and it started with a punishing running attack—the same one that landed Carolina at No. 3 in team rushing last year.
But don’t forget about Newton’s improved completion percentage and a very important stepping up from LaFell. All three improvements on the offensive side of the ball are much needed and will greatly benefit the Panthers.