Williams misses practice again, further hurting Panthers' offense

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A year ago, Carolina Panthers running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart had a catchy nickname and a new website, and they became the first teammates in NFL history each to rush for more than 1,100 yards.

This year, there's little to celebrate. The Panthers are 1-5, both backs are struggling, and now Williams is hurt, too.

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Double Trouble has become troubled.

Williams, who missed practice for the second consecutive day Thursday because of a sore foot, has managed just 361 yards on 87 carries with one touchdown. Stewart has fared even worse with just 148 yards on 50 carries and one score.

Last season, they each averaged more than 5 yards per carry, combining for 2,250 yards and 17 touchdowns for the league's third-best rushing attack.

This year, there has been little talk of website subscriptions and Double Trouble T-shirts.

"Instead of building up frustration, you've got to believe in the guys in front of us, that eventually things will start opening up the way they are supposed to," Stewart said.

There are plenty of reasons why neither player has looked explosive.

The Panthers' running game has been bogged down by eight-man fronts, a struggling and banged-up offensive line, a new fullback learning on the job and a passing game that has featured horrible quarterback play and failed to earn the respect of opponents.

Now the Panthers face the prospect of not having Williams, a 2009 Pro Bowl selection, for Sunday's game at St. Louis. Williams hasn't talked to reporters this week.

That would leave Stewart and Mike Goodson in the backfield against the Rams.

"Eventually, if you keep pounding, keep pounding, it will open," Stewart insisted. "Keep knocking on the door and eventually it will open up."

Even in the Panthers' first victory of the season last Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, the running game played a minimal role. Williams had 44 yards on 19 carries and lost a fumble before hobbling off in the final minute. Stewart had 29 yards on 14 carries.

It has left the Panthers with the NFL's 23rd-ranked rushing offense, and neither Williams nor Stewart has a 100-yard game.

"This game is a lot easier when the opponent is one dimensional," coach John Fox said.

That had been the Panthers' plight in the first five games. Quarterbacks Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen combined for nine interceptions and four lost fumbles, and no receiver stepped into the No. 2 role behind Steve Smith. It allowed teams to stack the line of scrimmage with eight or nine defenders to stop the run.

"We've seen eight-man boxes before, and we've been able to run against them," center Ryan Kalil said.

Not this year. A revamped offensive line has struggled to open holes after right guard Keydrick Vincent wasn't re-signed, and right tackle Jeff Otah has been sidelined all season because of a knee injury.

The Panthers benched right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau last week, moving Geoff Schwartz there and putting Garry Williams in Schwartz's old spot at right tackle. They will keep that lineup against the Rams.

Carolina also lost stalwart fullback Brad Hoover, who was released during the offseason youth movement. Second-year pro Tony Fiammetta has taken over, but he's still learning to be a lead blocker in the NFL.

There have been key mistakes by the backs, too.

Williams' longest run was a 39-yard touchdown on a cutback against New Orleans. He tried the same thing again as the Panthers were driving late against the Saints, but he was brought down for a 4-yard loss, helping to knock Carolina out of field-goal range in a 16-14 loss.

Stewart, who barely practiced the past two years because of an Achilles' tendon problem, hasn't taken advantage of being healthy after offseason surgery.

Stewart, who said he feels well physically, is "hopeful" last Sunday's success in the passing game will unclog the line of scrimmage. Moore threw for a career-high 308 yards in his return as a starter, and rookie David Gettis caught eight passes for 125 yards and his first two NFL touchdowns.

"Everyone knows we have two great running backs, really three including Mike Goodson," Gettis said. "Everybody is going to focus on the run. It's our jobs as receivers and quarterbacks and linemen blocking to make plays downfield and kind of loosen up the box.

"Give them a chance to make plays, because that is our strength in the offense."

Notes: LB Thomas Davis, who remains on the physically unable to perform list, is still hoping to return this season after his second major knee surgery in a year. "I'm still trying to make the Tampa game (Nov. 14)," Davis said. "That's my goal." ... DE Tyler Brayton returned to practice Thursday, one day after his wife gave birth to a baby girl. ... WR Devin Thomas (groin) was limited in practice.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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