Cam Newton Rusty in Return, but Running Game Keeping Panthers Offense Afloat

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Cam Newton Rusty in Return, but Running Game Keeping Panthers Offense Afloat
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While Cam Newton appeared to be working the rust off after his offseason ankle surgery in his first return to action Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs, Jonathan Stewart was polished. 

Stewart, who has only played 15 games over the past two seasons due to injuries to his ankles and knee and then dealt with an injured hamstring this offseason, rushed for two touchdowns against the Chiefs. The first came on his second touch of the night. 

Bob Leverone/Associated Press

Newton and the rest of the offense were slower out of the gate. Coach Ron Rivera planned to be cautious with Newton in his preseason debut, saying that how long he would play would depend on how long the offensive line was protecting him, per Joe Person of The Charlotte Observer

The first sack of the night came on third down on Newton's third series of the night, with 4:04 remaining in the first quarter. Yet Newton remained in long enough to be sacked again halfway through the second quarter. After one more pass—a 25-yard strike to Jason Avant—and two rushes by Stewart, one for his second score, Rivera pulled Newton. 

Ending on the long connection with Avant was a high note, but Newton and the offense sputtered to start the game, and the offensive line was implicated. The Panthers went three-and-out on their first three drives, during which Newton went 1-of-5 and was sacked. The sole completion was not to a receiver, but rather running back DeAngelo Williams on a five-yard checkdown

Newton was critical of his play and the slow start of the offense, per Person:

We had a slow start tonight, which is unacceptable. We have to stay on schedule and not waste opportunities like the (deep) shot to Benji. Kansas City is a good football team, and we didn’t match their intensity early, but it was good to put a few drives together and score some points.

When things did get going for Carolina on the fourth series, it was because the Panthers turned to their running back committee to get the ball moving. Stewart ran the ball twice for 19 yards and a touchdown, while Mike Tolbert helped set up the score.

Having Stewart healthy for an entire season for the first time since 2011 could breathe new life into Carolina's offense, a glimpse of which we saw Sunday. The former first-round draft pick rushed for 1,133 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2009, providing a one-two punch with Williams early in his career before the latter landed on injured reserve in 2010. 

As the table below shows, Stewart's health has impacted the Panthers' success in the run game. 

Stewart's Health and Success of Panthers' Run Game
Year Stewart Games Played Panthers Run Rank
2008 16 3rd
2009 16 3rd
2010 14 13th
2011 16 3rd
2012 9 9th
2013 6 11th

Pro-Football-Reference.com

Stewart's own injury history saga includes sustaining separate injuries to both ankles in 2012, a torn MCL in 2013 and a pulled hamstring this offseason. 

But as the Panthers head into the regular season, he and Williams are both healthy at the same time, and the combination of Stewart's power and Williams' speed could mean a potent backfield punch for Carolina. Add in Tolbert on third downs and the running game becomes a strong link for this offense. 

The one pass Newton did complete on that drive was not to Kelvin Benjamin, Avant or Jerricho Cotchery, his presumed top targets, but tight end Ed Dickson, in for Greg Olsen.

Even by the end of the night, when Newton had improved to 4-of-9 for 65 yards, he hadn't connected much with his targets. Of his four completions, two were to wide receiversBenjamin and Avant—and both were for big gains of 24 and 25 yards, respectively. Benjamin, targeted four times in the game, only brought in two catches. 

This offensive line has been a liability in both of the Panthers' preseason showings now, and the pass and run game could both suffer as a result of it even if Newton and his receivers do fall into a rhythm and Stewart stays healthy.

Center Ryan Kalil continues to hold down the middle, but the remaining four positions feature new faces. After starting left tackle Jordan Gross retired, former right tackle Byron Bell, who went undrafted out of New Mexico in 2011, made the switch to replace him. Nate Chandler will move to right tackle, next to rookie Trai Turner at right guard. Amini Silatolu will man the left guard spot. 

The new unit struggled against the Buffalo Bills in their first preseason action, and they didn't show much improvement Sunday. 

This was Newton's first time playing at game speed since his ankle surgery, and he still needs time to develop chemistry with his new weapons in Benjamin, Avant and Cotchery.

But the fact that Stewart didn't miss a step in his return and that Williams and Tolbert also got involved could be a boon to the Panthers' offense in terms of balance this season.

If Stewart can stay healthy and produce at a high level, he will keep defenses honest and bring defenders down to the box, as will the ever-present threat of Newton's legs. That should help get things going with the untested receiving corps. Newton was also playing without trusted weapon Greg Olsen on Sunday, who led the Panthers in receptions in 2013. 

It's early in the preseason, and what Newton and his weapons really need is to continue to get live game reps together. It may not look pretty this preseason, or even into the regular season, if the offensive line can't improve its pass protection. Once Newton has worked the rust off, we'll start to see a clearer picture of this offense emerge, and it will need to look sharper than it did Sunday night. 

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