The Carolina Panthers are investing heavily in their running backs, even while most NFL teams are devaluing the position. The Panthers recently lavished a five-year, $36.5 million contract extension on Jonathan Stewart. This came just one year after Carolina gave DeAngelo Williams a five-year, $43 million contract with $21 million in guarantees.
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As if that wasn't enough to solidify a deep and talented backfield, the Panthers signed Mike Tolbert in the offseason, giving them a hybrid fullback who can run, block and catch passes. On the NFL Draft Tracker Podcast, I asked Panthers general manager Marty Hurney about the team's decision to emphasize the running game in an increasingly pass-happy league. Hurney said a hard-nosed, physical running attack can set the tone for the game.
The Panthers are doubling down on their ground game a season after they finished third in the NFL with 2,408 rushing yards. So I thought it would be a good time to pop in some tape and see what each ball-carrier brings to the table.
Stewart is one of the best inside runners in the NFL. He combines excellent speed, quickness and vision with a punishing running style that overpowers defenders.
Most power runners need a ton of carries to be effective, but Stewart has made an impact with a limited workload. Through four years in the NFL, Stewart has gained exactly 3,500 rushing yards and amassed nine 100-yard games, despite averaging just 11.7 carries per contest. Last season was no exception: Stewart gained an impressive 5.4 yards per carry while averaging 8.9 rushing attempts per game.
The Panthers take advantage of Stewart's skills by routinely sending him between the tackles on quick-hitting runs from the shotgun formation. Below is a breakdown of one of the Panthers' favorite plays to run with Stewart in the game, taken from Carolina's 45-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints at the end of last season.
The Panthers are aligned in a shotgun formation with Stewart set to the left in this play, called a "Power-O." The backside guard is instructed to pull and kick out the defensive end or linebacker:
Stewart follows the lead blocker to the corner and cuts to the inside of the block to get to the second level. The speedy and quick Stewart darts down an open alley in the middle of the defense for a 29-yard touchdown:
Hurney regards Williams, who is listed as the starting running back, as the Panthers' "home-run threat" because he can score from anywhere on the field. In six years, Williams has 38 rushing touchdowns and 58 runs of 20 yards or more.
The most surprising thing about Williams' status as a big-play threat is that, like Stewart, he's produced with limited touches. Williams has had just two seasons with 200 carries or more; his career high came in 2008, when he ran the ball 273 times for 1,515 yards.
The lightened workload has kept him from sniffing the NFL's individual rushing title, but it has also let him stay fresh over the course of the long NFL season. Williams is thus quicker and more explosive than most runners are toward the end of the year, letting him contribute more big runs in key games.
Just like Stewart, Williams averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2011, second only to the Dallas Cowboys' DeMarco Murray (5.5). With 996 career carries, he's on the verge of becoming just the second player in NFL history to average more than five yards per carry with more than 1,000 career attempts, joining Jim Brown.
When evaluating Williams' game, his speed, quickness and burst stand out. He hits the hole as fast as any runner in football; the Panthers routinely get him to the edges with a variety of outside runs.
Below is a breakdown of a play that the Panthers love to run with Williams on the field, taken from a 30-27 loss to the Saints in Week 5.
The Panthers use option plays to take full advantage of the explosive running skills of both Williams and quarterback Cam Newton. In this play, the Panthers are running a reverse option. Newton starts to the right before reverse-pivoting and running the option to the left:
Newton takes the ball to the corner, reading the reaction of the defender at the end of the line. When the defender commits to him, Newton flips the ball to Williams, allowing Williams to get loose on the perimeter:
With open grass in front of him and a full head of steam, Williams rumbles 69 yards to the end zone:
The newest addition to the Panthers' backfield could be a valuable weapon in 2012, given that opponents will likely be focused on stopping the three-headed monster of Newton, Williams and Stewart. Tolbert will primarily align at the fullback position, but the Panthers will undoubtedly take advantage of his versatility by using him as an H-back in two-tight end sets and as a tailback in some goal-line and short-yardage formations.
Tolbert thrived as a multi-faceted playmaker when he was with the San Diego Chargers. In 2011, Tolbert caught a career-best 54 passes for 433 yards and two touchdowns, adding 490 rushing yards and eight scores on the ground. In 2010, Tolbert showed he can carry the load of a featured runner, leading the Chargers with 735 rushing yards and 11 scores. The versatile Tolbert gives the Panthers yet another way to attack defenses on the ground.
It's impossible to discuss the Panthers' running game without including Newton. The freakishly talented athlete is big and strong enough to bully defenders to the ground. Last season, he set an NFL record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (14) while running for 706 yards on 126 attempts. The Panthers will certainly look to reduce some of Newton's carries in the interest of protecting their franchise quarterback, but the threat that he can take off at any time poses a serious problem for opponents.
Defensive coordinators have been unable to account for Newton's impromptu scrambles. The fear that he'll flee the pocket forces some play callers to abandon their aggressive blitz packages. Newton should see plenty of vanilla coverage, making it easier for him to pass and creating huge seams in the defense for Williams, Stewart and Tolbert.
The Panthers' backfield is talented, deep and versatile, presenting a major challenge for opposing defenses. It's tough to imagine another team with a more imposing running game.