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Ask Bryan: Stewart still key to run game


With the run game dipping in productivity and Jonathan Stewart approaching his 30s, could we target a running back this offseason? – Jordan via Twitter

The Panthers haven't enjoyed a great year running the ball, ranking the lowest they have in the Ron Rivera era. The impressive part? They still rank 12th in the NFL, averaging 112.4 yards per game. And even with Cam Newton sure to post a career-low rushing total and currently tied for a career low with five rushing touchdowns, the Panthers rank eighth in the league with 15 rushing TDs.

A lot of the credit goes to Stewart. For the third consecutive year, his yards per game would have him on pace for a 1,000-yard season, though again he'll fall short. Injuries technically are a concern, but he should play his 13th game for the third consecutive season in Sunday's finale. That's not bad considering his physical running style that punishes the opposition just as much.

Could Carolina target a running back in the offseason? Of course. For one thing, you can never have too much of a good thing, especially at such a taxing position. At this very early juncture, there are some intriguing backs expected to be picked in the Panthers' range in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

Stewart will still be under contract next season, though the Panthers technically could part ways from him. So many things above my pay grade go into such decisions, plus the team still has Cameron Artis-Payne waiting in the wings. Stewart will be 30 in March but still hasn't quite reached 1,500 career carries. He could still be a difference maker for an offense wanting to re-establish its ability to run when it wants to run.

Why are the Panthers asking Cam Newton to throw the ball 40 times a game? Their key to success has always been running the ball, they seem to go away from the run too much. – Crystal in Fletcher, N.C.

The Panthers are almost sure to fall short of 2,000 rushing yards for the first time in Rivera's first six seasons, but I wouldn't say they've exactly abandoned the run to chuck it all over the field. As a team, Carolina's 531 pass attempts are 20th most in the league. Newton reached 40 pass attempts for the third time this season in the loss to Falcons. The Panthers clearly were playing catchup against Atlanta (43 attempts) and also at New Orleans (47), and his 40 attempts against San Francisco were in part a result of a game with more possessions than most.

As Rivera shared with counterpart Max Henson earlier this week, the running game will get plenty of attention in the offseason, but the Panthers aren't worried about how often Newton is throwing the ball. Now as for concerns over how often Newton and his receivers are actually connecting? That's another story.

Inconsistent offensive production within a game is a nemesis to winning football games. It appears that there is a reluctance to adjust quickly. What do the Panthers have to do differently when production is slipping away? – Brian in Denver, N.C.

The fan frustrations expressed in the previous two questions can really be boiled down to the first part of this question, namely: Where is the consistency on offense? The Panthers need to get healthy and need to perhaps get some help along the offensive line, but by and large, the pieces are in place.

With an NFL-best and franchise-record 500 points in 2015, the Panthers forced opposing defenses to adjust in the offseason. Carolina understandably believed its base offense would carry the day again in 2016 – especially with wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin back – but now it's time for the Panthers' offense to adjust. With the talent on the roster and the opportunity to add more in the offseason, this offense – which still ranks 14th in the league in scoring - could quickly ascend with more consistent execution.

View the top photos from Panthers vs. Falcons by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.

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