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Running game will ease pressure on Panthers quarterback

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Tim Heitman/US Presswire
Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart has averaged 4.7 yards per carry over his first three NFL seasons.


SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- During an evening practice before this week's preseason opener against the visiting Giants, Carolina Panthers quarterback Jimmy Clausen moved the offense down the field with precision timing. He looked comfortable with just about every snap, interacting with teammates in the huddle like a confident quarterback does.

No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton was more hit-and-miss during multiple team and seven-on-seven drills. He'd make a throw that would simply blow your mind, then he'd throw late or into double coverage and have it intercepted. Three picks in all during this practice.

Newton stood away from the huddle before calling plays, not because he was isolating himself but because he was receiving and deciphering the calls from quarterbacks coach Mike Shula through the helmet audio device -- something new to him.

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When things seemed to get sticky, the coaching staff called a running play, either for DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart, or for Newton. It's the best backstop for young quarterbacks, especially for this team in which the established running game might be relied on more than ever.

"Everybody in the NFL and who is a fan has come to terms with the fact that we can run the ball," said Williams, one of several core free agents to re-sign with the Panthers. "Everybody says we're a quarterback away from winning, possibly winning our division and so forth and so on. They're giving us the chance to run the ball to take pressure off the quarterbacks. Other teams are going to bring extra guys in the box to stop our running game so that opens up passing lanes for the quarterbacks."

Though Clausen looks more game ready and is No. 1 on the depth chart, Newton will be the starter at some point. He was drafted No. 1 overall and the "wow" plays make it hard not to realize what he's capable of doing.

The Panthers are insulating things for whoever gets under center.

The key to any offensive success is the ability to take advantage of the running game, which has proven to be the best friend of the young quarterback. Matt Ryan, Mark Sanchez, Joe Flacco, Sam Bradford, and Josh Freeman have all been supported -- and to a degree carried -- by a strong ground attack. It's helped set up the play-action passing game and allowed more single coverage on the wide receivers and/or tight ends.

As awful as the Panthers were during last season's 2-14 debacle, they still rushed for 115 yards per game -- and that was with Williams and Stewart combining for just 265 carries because of time missed with injuries. Williams, the No. 1 tailback, missed 10 games. The huge problem was the worst passing offense in the NFL, which averaged a woeful 143 yards in the air with just nine touchdowns.

"The biggest thing we're looking for is consistency," coach Ron Rivera said. "The highs and lows are going to have to be done away with. What can they handle? Hopefully they'll give us a good idea on how people will attack us. The biggest thing is consistency, how they handle the bright lights. How they handle the opponents. How they handle teammates. We'll play the guys when they're ready to play. We want to see our young guys. We want to develop those young guys."

During the process, they will rely on the running game, albeit one quite dissimilar to the effective one-cut style the Panthers have run for years.

"A total 180," as Williams puts it.

Carolina will run a similar offense to that of the Chargers. That's where new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski came from, and you can't blame him for using such an effective system. So with Williams and Stewart, think LaDanian Tomlinson and Michael Turner when they were in San Diego -- at least in how they'll be used. As promising as that sounds, plays still have to be made in the passing game.

"Maybe not every year we're in the top five, but we always did pretty well running the ball," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "We've got to just keep it up. That's what we're good at, but for us to be great we've got to make plays taking some shots down the field. That's what this offense is trying to do: Body blow, body blow, body blow with the run game, then take the head out with the big play down the field.

"Whether it's Cam or Jimmy who's back there, we're getting more tools offensively that hopefully is going to make throwing the ball easier."

Carolina has a good offensive line, which is regaining right tackle Jeff Otah, who missed last season after knee surgery. Mike Goodson is a third solid running back in the mix with Williams and Stewart. Carolina also acquired tight ends Jeremy Shockey, Greg Olsen and Ben Hartsock because they plan to use multiple tight end sets to offset their lack of reliable wide outs other than Steve Smith.

You can't undervalue the importance of the tight ends for a young quarterback either. Ryan (Tony Gonzalez), Freeman (Kellen Winslow), Sanchez (Dustin Keller), and Flacco (Todd Heap, now gone) have had tight ends who basically are or were No. 2 receivers for them. As it relates to the Panthers, the role of the tight end is even bigger. Again, think Chargers offense where Antonio Gates was the receiving focal point.

"You can flex them, create mismatches," said Rivera, adding they will use "12 personnel" -- two tight ends one wide receiver -- a lot. "With the kind of speed and ability our two guys have, if you match them with a linebacker, you can exploit things."

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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