Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams is having the breakout season team fans have been waiting for since 2003, the year Stephen Davis gained 1,444 yards as Carolina advanced to Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Williams has accumulated 782 yards on 153 carries and has scored six touchdowns, and he owns a 5.1 yards per carry average this season.
Just for comparison, consensus elite RB Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings has carried 225 times for 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns in 2008. AP has a 4.9 yards- per-carry average. Theoretically, if Williams had as many carries as Peterson, he would have 48 yards more than Peterson, in addition to several more touchdowns.
But Williams doesn't get as many carries as other starting running backs because he's in a platoon with rookie Jonathan Stewart. The pair forms a two-headed rushing monster.
Nevertheless, Williams is getting better every week.
At the beginning of the year, Williams was turning in poor performances against better run defenses.
He combined for 85 yards against the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, three teams well known for their stifling run defenses. Yes, I know—the Bears' run defense is terrible now. But there were unusual circumstances that made running on them tough in that game. And I'm not just saying that to make Williams look better.
A key attribute to Williams' success is the offensive line.
In Week Two against the Bears, star Panthers receiver Steve Smith was serving the second game of a two-week suspension (we all know what for, but everything has been fine for a long time, so I won't go into that). That made it much easier for the Bears to stack eight in the box and focus almost entirely on stopping the run.
In addition, Panthers starting left guard Travelle Wharton didn't play that week because of a knee injury.
Essentially, the Panthers were missing a starter pivotal to the success of their running game as well as a notable figure in their passing game, which allowed a then-dominant run defense to stack the line of scrimmage, making it nearly impossible for an elusive back like Williams to have a respectable game.
As a result, he gained only 31 yards on 11 carries in the first half and was spelled by backup Jonathan Stewart at the beginning of the second half.
In Week Three against the Vikings, Carolina faced one of the NFL's most daunting rush defenses with Wharton out once again. Sure, it didn't help that Wharton sat out the game. But the real kicker was that the Vikings were 0-2 at that point and in real danger of dropping so far down that they would be playing catch-up the rest of the season if they were going to have a shot at making the playoffs.
Thus, Minnesota came out with a fire that only a team trying to save their season would have. Needless to say that that extra competitiveness and adrenaline only made their defense better, namely their run defense.
Carolina's offensive line got severely overmatched and couldn't open any holes for Williams to run through, and nobody could have successfully juked five defenders rapidly converging in wave. So Williams only picked up 27 yards on 10 carries.
In Week Six against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-2), the Panthers (4-1) were pitted against another of the league's top defenses. The Bucs were fired up and hell-bent on getting a share of the NFC South lead. The Panthers came out as flat and out-of-sync as Tampa Bay came out ready to go and on the same page.
Plus, three of the Panthers' starting offensive linemen—C Ryan Kalil, LT Jordan Gross, and RT Jeff Otah missed the game with injuries. And Panthers QB Jake Delhomme had a terrible game, as he threw three interceptions, which meant that the passing game was nonexistent, allowing the Bucs to stack eight in the box like the Bears had done.
Combine myriad offensive line injuries, a terrible passing game, and a highly determined, top defense waiting on edge in every pre-snap count to clobber him, it's understandable that Williams only had 27 yards on 11 carries.
But Williams has performed well against bad defensive teams, no matter what five guys make up the offensive line. Against the Chargers, Chiefs, Cardinals, Raiders, and Lions Williams has combined for 577 yards and six touchdowns on 88 carries.
The fact that he has run well on bad teams but not on good teams means one thing. He's a very good back who will absolutely torch inferior run defenses; and even turn in respectable performances against better rush defenses, but against the best rush defenses he needs a little help from the offensive line.
The fact that makes me say this is that he rushed for 108 yards and a touchdown against Arizona, a team that had the 10th-best rush defense coming into the teams' Week Eight matchup. It's not easy to surpass 100 yards rushing against a top-tier rush defense.
Furthermore, in recent weeks, Williams has shown noticeable improvement in his elusiveness and ability to sneak in between bodies for extra yards. You could make the argument that the Lions and Raiders' crapshoot run defenses just made him look good.
But Williams was squirming his way out from piles of four and five would-be tacklers. You'd think that between the four or fivesome would just be able to smother him. But they couldn't.
But his most eye-popping new attribute is being able to drag multiple defenders with him for several extra yards. That's precisely what he did against the Lions on the touchdown that clinched the game for the Panthers late in the fourth quarter.
Carolina was on the Detroit four-yard line after Charles Godfrey picked Lions QB Daunte Culpepper off and returned it to the four. Williams received the hand-off, got swarmed by a crowd of Lions defenders just as he passed the line of scrimmage, and dragged the pile with him as he fought toward the end zone and finally collapsed into it.
That's the kind of thing Williams couldn't do before and will add a totally new dynamic to his game.
Williams is a small running back (Williams is 5'9" and 217 pounds) who uses his size—or lack thereof— to be elusive and hard to spot but can also muscle his way for extra yards to convert a first down or get into the end zone is an invaluable asset and incredible luxury in today's NFL.
Just ask the Vikings about Adrian Peterson. Doesn't Williams' game sound breathtakingly similar to that of the NFL's leading rusher?