The Carolina Panthers have rushed for 100 or more yards in each of their past 14 games, which ties Seattle for the longest current streak in the NFL.
Running back Jonathan Stewart wasn’t aware of that Friday when he met with reporters. When told, his answer was simple.
“Got to keep it going,” he said.
Carolina goes for 15 straight against Tampa Bay this weekend after clawing to make it to 100 yards in some games this season.
Stewart has 170 yards on 49 carries this season for an average of 3.5 yards per carry – more than a yard below his career average entering this season. While he’s no longer sharing the load with DeAngelo Williams, Stewart is facing more run-stoppers opponents as defenses regularly load the box with eight players.
“The nice thing is, they’ve dared us to throw it and we’ve had success throwing it and hopefully we can continue to do that,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “And we’d like to think maybe our guys will get a little more respect. If not hopefully we’ll have some success throwing it vertical again.”
It’s no secret the Panthers don’t have a top-flight receiving group, so teams have focused more of their efforts on stopping the run and forcing Cam Newton to throw to his receivers more.
For the better part of a decade, the Panthers’ offense has been about rushing the ball and controlling the clock. Carolina has 15,735 rushing yards since 2008, the most of any NFL team.
Stewart has been the bell cow since late last season. He has 849 rushing yards in 10 games since Week 13 of last season, which is second-most in the NFL over that span behind Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch.
But the past three weeks have been tough on Stewart. He’s had games of 56, 62 and 52 rushing yards as teams dare the Panthers to throw the ball.
Newton’s legs have offered some relief. The quarterback is the team’s second-leading rusher with 144 yards and he’s taken several read-option carries as well as a few scrambles and quarterback draws.
With Newton’s help, the Panthers are tied with Chicago for the sixth-best rushing offense in the league, and if teams want the Panthers to go to the air, they’ll be fine with that.
“Obviously we have had success running it to a degree,” Rivera said. “If they keep packing it in and we keep running it, all of a sudden the play action opens up and that’s always a huge plus for us.”
If Stewart’s going to have a breakout game this season, Tampa Bay could be a good place to start.
The Buccaneers have the third-worst rushing defense three games into the season, allowing 138 yards on the ground per game. But Stewart hasn’t had great success recently against the Bucs, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry on 60 touches in the past four games.
Stewart did not participate in practice for two days this week as he recovered from a leg injury. He was joined on the sideline by fullback Mike Tolbert, who injured his groin in last week’s game.
Both players are probable for the game. Rookie Cameron Artis-Payne, who’s been behind Fozzy Whittaker on the depth chart, will be active for this week’s game, and Rivera would like to use him more.
Artis-Payne, who showed great promise in the preseason, only has three carries for 6 yards this season as Carolina looks to get him more opportunities with late leads.
“Again there’s a fine balance because you’re talking about a rookie, although we did throw him in last week in a very important situation that was out of necessity,” said Rivera, who put in the rookie late in the Saints game to carry three times with Tolbert and Stewart injured. “That shows you there is some confidence in the young man, whether it’s by choice or not.”