It used to be the two-headed beast of a rushing attack the Bucs had to prepare for when facing Carolina. Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams for seven straight years, from 2008-2014.
Even though durability was never one of the duo’s top attributes, it was two Pro Bowl-quality running back options in the same backfield. When one was down, the other was usually there to carry the load.
That changed when Williams left Carolina for Pittsburgh last year. Three times in 2015 – including Week 17 against Tampa Bay – the Panthers had to piece together their rushing attack when Stewart was unavailable. Four weeks into 2016, head coach Ron Rivera and the Panthers are navigating that reality once again. Even worse, they may have to do so without this season’s leading rusher in terms of carries and yards – quarterback Cam Newton (29 for 147).
After picking up 64 yards on 15 carries during the season-opening road loss at Denver, Stewart pulled up with a hamstring injury a week later against San Francisco and hasn’t played since. Carolina’s looked to backups Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne and fullback Mike Tolbert to fill in and the group has performed serviceably.
Whittaker has averaged 5.2 yards per carry while picking up 141 yards on 27 attempts and the Panthers are the eighth-best rushing team in the league, posting 121.8 yards per game.
That productivity on the ground failed to show up last week in Atlanta, though, snapping Carolina’s streak of 30 straight regular season games with at least 100 yards rushing. It’s 49-yard performances like those that make Stewart’s value to the team more evident.
“Very much so,” Rivera said during his conference call with the Tampa Bay media Thursday. “That’s the hard part about not having him right now. Not having him, I think people begin to realize exactly what he means to us. He’s a solid football player who brings a power-style running game to us. He’s a very physical guy. And then a lot of respect kind of rubs off to the rest of the team. I think whenever you miss a guy like that, it shows. We had a nice little stretch going of 100-yard games and we didn’t get 100 yards last week rushing for the first time in about two-and-a-half years, so it was kind of disappointing.”
Now it’s on Tampa Bay to try and keep Carolina from starting up a new century mark streak, potentially without having to contain Newton or Stewart. The Bucs have had decent success slowing opponents’ run games, surrendering an average of 95.8 yards per Sunday, but continue to endure their own rash of injuries along the defensive line. The team downgraded defensive end Robert Ayers Jr. and his ankle injury Friday, keeping him out of practice after being a limited participant Thursday. Also not joining teammates on the field for a Friday practice inside Raymond James Stadium were defensive tackles Gerald McCoy (calf) and Clinton McDonald (hamstring) and defensive end Noah Spence (shoulder).
The Panthers are game planning for Tampa Bay’s beat-up front seven the same way the Bucs are game planning for Carolina’s beat-up backfield. That’s why there’s no reason to believe the Panthers won’t be trying to establish and retain an effective ground attack Monday night, Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith said.
“I think they’re a good football team, they’ve not run the ball as well as they would like,” he said. “Cam Newton has been their running back the last three weeks. I know Jonathan Stewart has not practiced this week. We’re not expecting to see him, but I know Coach Rivera very well and I believe that they definitely want to be able to run the football, like all teams in this league.”