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Slow-starting Panthers finally running on all cylinders

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The frustration boiled over one day after the Halloween nightmare in which the Carolina Panthers' once-vaunted running game managed 25 yards against the St. Louis Rams and plummeted to 28th in the NFL.

"Did you see any holes?" running back Jonathan Stewart asked a reporter.

Although it's too late to salvage a lousy season, the running lanes look big these days, and the gaudy ground numbers have returned.

Stewart rushed for 137 yards Sunday in the Panthers' 19-12 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. He amassed 133 one week earlier when Carolina (2-12) rolled up 212 yards on the ground against the Atlanta Falcons. Stewart had 92 and 98 yards in the two games before that after a two-game absence with a concussion.

When Stewart was out, little-used Mike Goodson went for 120 and 100 yards in consecutive games. It has helped the Panthers jump to 12th in the league in rushing, even with DeAngelo Williams lost to a season-ending foot injury.

It's not quite 2009's third-ranked run game, but it provides a needed confidence boost for the NFL's worst team.

"I'd say continuity," Panthers coach John Fox said Tuesday when asked to explain the resurgence. "We started off a little different without (right tackle Jeff) Otah in the mix. We were looking for a starting right guard even during that time. We had those shuffles. We had a couple shuffles at running back."

It's far too late for Carolina to contend for anything except the No. 1 overall draft pick, but there's a sense of pride that the thing that defined the Panthers the past two seasons has returned. Carolina has needed to lean on running the ball with rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen and the passing offense ranked last in the league.

"I feel like our run game has been pretty good the last month and a half or so," left tackle Jordan Gross said.

Most point to Carolina's revamped offensive line as the reason for the early problems -- and Otah's sore knee, which turned into a season-ending injury.

"That was a huge deal. Otah, he's a game-changing type tackle," center Ryan Kalil said. "You watch some of the things he did last year. Sometimes plays aren't there, and he figures out a way to demolish two or three guys and make holes for the running backs. He does some unbelievable things. He was extremely missed at the beginning of the season."

But after Stewart and Williams last year became the first teammates in NFL history to rush for more than 1,100 yards in a season, the Panthers still were expected to tilt the offense heavily toward the run with inexperienced Matt Moore taking over at quarterback.

Instead, the Panthers didn't have a 100-yard rusher until Week 10, when the backs and line -- now also without guard Travelle Wharton (toe) -- started to click.

"I think over the last four or five weeks, we've had continuity in both those areas, and I think that's why the improvement," Fox said.

Despite two fumbles in the past two weeks, Stewart has returned to his 2009 form to take over the team lead in rushing, with 668 yards. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry Sunday, with one haul for 35 yards.

"After a couple runs, I don't think (Arizona) wanted to tackle Stew anymore," Goodson said. "He's a big guy. He pounded them and pounded them, and it opened up."

A tougher test comes Thursday, when the Panthers face the league's top rushing defense. The Pittsburgh Steelers have allowed just 63.4 yards per game on the ground.

The underdog Panthers will at least go into the game minus all the troubles from earlier in the season.

"Focus and finish. You know that's a saying that Coach (Mike) Bellotti used to say to us (at the University of) Oregon," Stewart said. "There are some ups and downs, but it's all about how you finish."

Notes: Goodson (illness), FB Tony Fiammetta (ankle), DE Tyler Brayton (hip) and CB Captain Munnerlyn (personal) missed practice Tuesday. Fox said Munnerlyn was expected to return Wednesday. ... CB Chris Gamble (ankle) and WR Armanti Edwards (illness) were limited in practice.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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