The Carolina Panthers seem to have re-established their identity as a run-heavy team. Twice in the last three weeks, the Panthers have eclipsed the 265-yard mark on the ground, racking up 267 in Tampa Bay and 270 last week in Arizona.
Sandwiched in the middle of those great performances is a game that can be summed up with a single character: ?
The Panthers threw the ball 44 times at home against the league's worst rush defense and wound up losing painfully to the Bills, 20-9. After that game, it was unclear whether Jake Delhomme would remain the team's starting quarterback, or if this squad had anything left in the tank for the once-promising 2009 season.
After the performance that was put on in Arizona, the question of whether or not this team has the ability to make something of this season has been answered. Carolina played just like the 2008 team that was supposed to carry them to a Super Bowl before being crashed and burned by the Cardinals. Delhomme wasn't forced to make a lot of throws, but made the ones that counted when he needed to. He spent most of the afternoon turning around and handing the ball to DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who carried the Panthers to their third win of the season.
The dynamic duo of Williams and Stewart, known as Double Trouble, is among the top running back combinations in the league. Williams is sixth in the league in rushing yardage with 619 yards, while Stewart is averaging just under five yards a carry in a not-so-backup role. The Panthers have moved past the easiest part of their schedule and will play a second consecutive road game Sunday against one of the last two remaining undefeated teams, the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints and Panthers have been division rivals since the re-alignment in 2002 that created the NFC South. There have been several memorable games between them and this Sunday's game has the potential to rank among the best, given the statistical fodder in play.
Drew Brees and the Saints are known league-wide for their explosive passing game, with Brees toting a quarterback rating of 107.6 and having thrown for a league-high 16 touchdowns. New Orleans has also picked up some of the slack on defense, which was the only phase of the game holding them back from being a playoff team a year ago. The one area of the defense still slacking is the run defense.
The Panthers' rushing attack seems to be back in the forefront of the coaches' gameplan, while their passing defense is ranked number one in the league.
That equation could potentially set the stage for a thrilling strength vs. strength matchup. No defense in the league, regardless of ranking, can go into a game against New Orleans expecting to hold Brees in check for an entire game. The key is to figure out how to counter attack them when you have the ball, rest your defense, and take care of the ball so as not to give that well-oiled machine a short field.
What better prescription than a heavy dose of the running game?
The Saints, seemingly unstoppable for the first few weeks of the season, have shown weakness in the last couple of games and have made it known that they are, indeed, beatable.
In the last two weeks, the Dolphins and the Falcons have had enormous success running the ball. The Dolphins came closer to beating the Saints than any other team has this year, forcing a late rally by Brees and company that kept their undefeated record in tact.
Ronnie Brown carried the ball 16 times for only 48 yards and one touchdown, but Ricky Williams ran nine times for 80 yards and three touchdowns. All together, the Dolphins racked up 137 yards and four touchdowns on 30 carries, good for a little over four-and-a-half yards per carry.
The Falcons followed that performance with more of a one-man battering ram approach, with Michael Turner racking up 151 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. That is over seven-and-a-half yards per touch, and in total the Falcons averaged just under seven yards a carry as a team on 24 attempts.
With numbers like that, it's hard to think that Double Trouble won't cause a problem for the Saints defense on Sunday.
Cardinals defenders said after the Panthers victory that they "knew what was coming, and still couldn't stop it." This means that Carolina's offensive line, touted as one of the best last year and having returned all five starters, is back in top form.
The Panthers will likely run the ball 40-plus times again for the third time in the last four games, meaning the Saints' defense will have to be ready for a long, physically draining game. Both backup defensive tackles, Sedrick Ellis and Kendrick Clancy, have missed practice time this week due to injuries, which could mean increased reps for the starters, leading to additional fatigue.
The Saints aren't the only ones with injury problems, as the Panthers are missing both of their fullbacks this week in practice. Dante Rosario, a second-string tight end, could fill in at the fullback role, but he, too, has missed the practice week so far. That leaves the Panthers with limited options and could force them to sign a fullback to blaze the trail for Double Trouble this week. The only other course of action could be placing Jeff King at fullback, or perhaps going with formations that put Williams and Stewart in the game at the same time.
Look for the Panthers to continue to split the carries between Williams and Stewart similarly to the way they always have. Williams will start the game and have at least a handful more carries than Stewart, while Stewart will be in on most short yardage and goal line situations.
If the Panthers can continue to expose the Saints' rushing defense and can live up to their ranking of number one pass defense, then the result Sunday in New Orleans could be much different than you may have thought a couple of weeks ago.
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