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Panthers making a strong run into the postseason

Over the years, we've heard the description of football's power style of running described as being straightforward, heading north and south and rushing downhill. Though football's thesaurus is loaded with terms meaning the same thing, the current label -- running downhill -- is perfect when talking about the Carolina Panthers.

Yes, tailbacks DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are an explosive tandem that has combined for more than 2,300 rushing yards. However, it's not their style -- especially their penchant for breaking tackles, either with moves or brute force -- that necessarily fits the description.

It's Carolina's momentum in the running game.

Over the final eight regular-season games -- especially the final four -- the Panthers have generated a head of steam that has them barreling into Saturday night's divisional playoff against visiting Arizona.

The Panthers have rushed for 2,437 yards on the season. Since gaining 113 yards on the ground in a 27-23 victory over the Cardinals in Week 8, Carolina has amassed 1,526 rushing yards.

In the season's final four weeks, they strung together rushing totals of 299 against Tampa Bay, 147 against Denver, 158 against the N.Y. Giants and 234 against New Orleans, while finishing 3-1. That's 838 yards, an average of 209.5 per game. Trumping the yardage is the Panthers' commitment to the run. In that four-game span, they ran the ball 144 times -- an average of 36 times per game.

That isn't a team running downhill; that's a team rolling downhill with potentially unstoppable inertia.

History shows that in the playoffs, when the weather can be a factor and minimizing turnovers is paramount, teams that can run the ball stand a good chance of winning.

"We stepped up in the second part of the season, when it mattered most, and it got us to where we are today," said Williams, who set the franchise single-season records for rushing yards (1,515) and touchdowns (20).

The keys to the overall success of the running game, and especially the late-season surge, vary depending on who's offering an opinion.

"It's the O-line opening holes," Williams said.

Fullback Brad Hoover: "We're just executing. Right now we're starting to hit a stride, especially more with DeAngelo than Jonathan. We've been on a tear. It can stop at anytime, but right now we're not planning on it.

Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast: "It all starts with their offensive line and the physicality of the offensive line."

Gross, a first-time Pro Bowl player, anchors Carolina's nasty unit, which combines in-line drive blocking with zone schemes, typically on the backside, that allows for cutback runs. Left guard Travelle Wharton has thrived since being moved inside from left tackle before the season. Center Ryan Kalil and right guard Geoff Hangartner, who has played three positions this season, have been more than reliable.

Rookie Jeff Otah, a massive right tackle, has proven to be a huge addition, especially now that he's finally grasped the nuances of the system -- something that didn't happen until the final few weeks. It's no coincidence that the Panthers' run game shifting into high gear coincided with Otah's progression and the starting offensive line had its health restored.

Not one starter on the line has played every game. Over the final six games, the starting unit remained largely intact, although right guard Keydrick Vincent went on injured reserve Dec. 20. Hangartner has stepped in for Vincent.

While the offensive line has come together, Williams and Stewart have also matured as a tandem. Stewart, a first-round draft pick from Oregon, missed most of training camp with a toe injury. He was very effective from the get-go but much of that was based on ability and discipline.

Now he's gotten the feel for things. At the same time, Williams has really gotten the feel for things. He has rightfully dominated the workload over the past month, gaining 560 yards and scoring seven rushing touchdowns on 80 carries (7 yards per carry). He has broken off runs of 30, 56 and 41 in that stretch.

Stewart's role has diminished but coach John Fox is going to stick with the hot back. Williams has just been radioactive.

"If we can get those guys one-on-one with a safety or a cornerback, good things can happen," said Gross. "DeAngelo is really hitting his stride. He's running as hard as he ever has in December."

Tune in

NFL Network's Marshall Faulk will interview Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams during Saturday's broadcast of NFL GameDay Morning. The show will begin at 2 p.m. ET.

Not to be excluded in the conversation is the lead blocking of Hoover, who is very good at getting on the first defender that crosses his face when he leads Williams or Stewart through a hole. He is an experienced blocker who knows when to hammer and when to simply escalate the lateral momentum of an overzealous defender.

The most helpful element to the running game might not have much to do with the running game at all. Wide receivers Muhsin Muhammad and Steve Smith have paired to soften some run-based defensive sets by making plays downfield.

Smith is arguably the most dangerous offensive player in the league and if teams start paying too much attention to what's happening between the tackles, they could get burned by No. 89.

Case in point: In the third quarter of a Dec. 8 game with Tampa Bay, the Bucs tightened up their run defense and tied the game 10-10. Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme completed five passes to Smith, including a 38-yard touchdown. When Tampa Bay started to roll its defense more toward Smith, Carolina scored three fourth-quarter rushing touchdowns. Williams ran for a franchise-record 186 yards.

Pendergast said when it comes to Smith, it really doesn't matter what defense you play.

"Steve Smith makes catches in single, double, triple and quadruple coverages," Pendergast said. "He makes plays regardless of the coverage. He creates problems for every defense."

Muhammad can't be overlooked. He has 65 catches for 923 yards and five touchdowns.

Panthers players say they know they will be facing an Arizona defense dialed in to slowing their run game, much the way the Cardinals did to Atlanta in their wild-card victory last weekend. It's nothing new. Every team has tried, but most have failed, especially of late.

The yards the Panthers have amassed on the ground have not gone to waste. The most unspoken aspect of what's transpired with Carolina of late has been its ability to rack up points. The Panthers, not historically known as an offensive juggernaut under Fox, have averaged 32.3 points over their past four games.

So if the game with Arizona turns into a shootout, Carolina can hang.

"It's usually a slugfest and it usually comes down to whoever has the ball last," Muhammad said. "Lately we've been able to stay balanced with the running game with DeAngelo and Jonathan Stewart. Those guys have been able to run the ball."


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