How the Panthers Can Get the Most out of Crowded Backfield

Chris TrapassoAnalyst IOctober 31, 2013

TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 4:  Running backs Jonathan Stewart #28 and DeAngelo Williams #34 of the Carolina Panthers celebrate a touchdown run against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers December 4, 2011 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

You're the offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers.

Your perfectly sculpted quarterback specimen and franchise foundation Cam Newton has completed 58 of his last 75 passes—that's 77.8 percent—for 667 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions during an impressive three-game winning streak.

He's scored twice on the ground during that stretch, as well.

Now, you're facing the division rival Atlanta Falcons, a preseason NFC Super Bowl contender, that's fallen on some hard times on the injury front and has fielded a much more vulnerable defense than many expected.

Just when life couldn't be any better, Joseph Person of The Charlotte Observer reports that Jonathan Stewart is set to return to the field after missing the first half of the season with injury.

Jonathan Stewart's 2008-2011 Statistics
CarriesYardsYards Per Carry
20081848364.5
20092211,1335.1
20101787704.3
20111427615.4
Averages181.258754.82
ESPN

Your task—keep Cam as efficient as he's been throwing the ball while juggling the running back-by-committee approach that now features DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, Stewart and the powerful, multidimensional quarterback.

Quite the problem to have, no?

How would you do it?

Well, first, you'd analyze some positive trends during the offensive revitalization over the past three outings.

You'd notice that your team ran it an average 34.6 carries per game over that stretch, and the yards-per-carry averages of the primary runners were as follows:

  • Cam Newton: 3.53 
  • DeAngelo Williams: 3.65
  • Mike Tolbert: 3.50

Yikes.

Not exactly fantastic numbers.

But, hey, whatever works.

If a high number of team carries has put your quarterback in comfortable situations, and those comfortable situations have resulted in him completing more than 75 percent of his passes and have kept the interceptions away, so be it.

CHARLOTTE, NC - OCTOBER 20:  Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers during their game at Bank of America Stadium on October 20, 2013 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

However, you'd also notice that Williams and Tolbert have combined for 13 catches, 129 yards and two touchdowns over the last three games.

Now those are some fantastic numbers.

You'd then take a look at Stewart's past suggests in order to determine what to expect in his future.

In 2012, a season tarnished by injury, the former first-round pick managed to play in only nine games. He amassed only 336 yards on 93 carries, good for a pedestrian 3.6 yards-per-carry average.

Before that, though, Stewart was a relatively low-volume, efficient producer.

Here's a look at his statistics from his rookie year in 2008 to 2011:

TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 24: DeAngelo Williams #34 of the Carolina Panthers rushes during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on October 24, 2013 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

It'd probably be smart to temper the expectations regarding Stewart, though. After all, a 4.8 yards-per-carry average isn't exactly easy for any running back to sustain, never mind one who's 28 and is returning from offseason surgeries on both ankles.

But is a dip into the 4.0-4.3 range reasonable?

Sure.

But you can't thrust him into the starting lineup right away. Williams has earned that job. Either way, your ultimate objective should be to find a way to get in the ballpark of 30 team carries—remember, 34.6 carries per game during this win streak—to keep the status quo for Newton.

Oh, you can't forget this injury tidbit about Williams, from Person:

Rivera expects Charles Johnson (groin) and DeAngelo Williams (quad) to practice Friday.

So, sounds like you'll have Williams, Tolbert and Stewart to lead a three-headed rushing attack into the game against the Falcons, a team that's allowed 4.6 yards per carry this season but has surrendered an average QB rating of 105.5 to its opponents.

Jonathan Stewart's Statistics - 2008 through 2011
CarriesYardsYards Per Carry
20081848364.5
20092211,1335.1
20101787704.3
20111427615.4
Averages181.258754.82
ESPN

You can't get greedy.

Maybe you give Cam a few more opportunities to throw against the vulnerable Atlanta secondary.

He's averaged a mere 25 passing attempts during this streak. You want this streak to continue. Maybe 30 attempts is the ceiling?

While in-game developments will likely force you to skew from the ideal number of passes and runs you'd like to hit every week—both near 30—you should probably have that number circled on your play-calling sheet every Sunday.

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 07: Tight end Jeff Cumberland #87 of the New York Jets runs after a reception as strong safety William Moore #25 of the Atlanta Falcons defends during their game at the Georgia Dome on October 7, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

With a relatively solid three-back system now ready for deployment, the best way handle the timeshare would be to simply give each runner a somewhat equal amount of carries early and continue with the "hot hand" while using the other two to keep the entire trio fresh.

Right now, as the Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator, you're in paradise.

You're installing a game plan for Newton, who's absolutely on fire, for a game against a defensively challenged division rival.

But remember, the running game—and the defense—helped your quarterback get to where he's been of late, and with DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and now Jonathan Stewart at your disposal, don't be afraid to continually pound the rock.