Ground game getting into gear

Christian McCaffrey runs against Arizona

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers have taken their run game a step at a time, and it may be about to hit its stride.

First, they said they were going to run in New York. Then they actually did it in Atlanta. Then Christian McCaffrey came back. Then they added the NFL's all-time leader in touchdown runs by a quarterback.

Now, they wonder what they're capable of on the ground, and just in time.

McCaffrey just grinned when asked what adding Cam Newton back into the lineup could do for the team's run game, a week after Newton scored a touchdown on his first snap in Arizona, looking very much like the goal-line threat he's always been.

"I'd be curious to sit in a defensive room and hear some of those meetings," McCaffrey said when asked about how teams would plan for the two of them together. "Any time you have more dynamic weapons on a team, it's more difficult to prepare for. So adding a weapon like that definitely helps."

Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey

That's the interesting thing about the Panthers' rushing offense lately, it's worked even without an ideal collection of parts.

Without McCaffrey in Atlanta, they combined to run 47 times for 203 yards, the most in the Matt Rhule era. Then he came back, and they eased him into things in his first game back from a hamstring injury, but last week he looked fully healed.

He had 161 yards from scrimmage against the Cardinals, running 13 times for 95 yards (a ridiculous 7.3 yards per carry). And though he did miss those five games, he's second in the league in scrimmage yards per game (126.2), with only Derrick Henry of the Titans posting a better average (136.4).

It hasn't been easy, as the Panthers have approached the season with a mixed bag of offensive linemen. Almost literally, as they're practically pulling lineups out of a hat. If veteran right guard John Miller returns this week, they could put their eighth combination of linemen in 11 games on the field. (Even if backup tackle Trent Scott stays at right guard again, 7 in 11 is still a lot).

Having that many people in and out of the lineup (including the running back) makes it a challenge, one which takes days to get ready for.

"The thing that excited me the most was the preparation throughout the week," McCaffrey said. "We're having extra meetings, going over different stuff, really trying to dial in what everyone is seeing so there's no miscommunication, no 'my bad' when it comes to game day. That's the stuff that excites me, because you see the work through the week come into play on Sunday.

"It's really fun when that gets clicking, because it's not just one guy; it's a whole unit of really talented offensive linemen who are playing at a high level."

Scott laughed a little when asked about his part in the operation.

A tackle by trade, the 6-foot-5, 320-pound Scott had very few snaps at guard at all (just a few his rookie year in San Diego under position coach Pat Meyer there), before he replaced Miller three weeks ago.

That, along with the insertion of 6-foot-6, 315-pound Michael Jordan at left guard has given the Panthers a bigger and more physical presence in the middle.

"I think it's fun," Scott said of the new emphasis — and success — in the run game. "Michael will probably tell you the same. We take pride in being physical up front, try to be that way every week.

"We try to run the ball. We want the offense to run through us. I think any offensive line in the league will tell you the same thing; the offense runs through the line. We want to put it on our back, and try to be as dominant as we can."

Having McCaffrey back certainly helps, and Newton's presence at the goal line was immediate. Although, McCaffrey joked that he's going to have to go harder now, to keep his new quarterback from taking all his red zone touches.

"You've got to score from farther out, man," he said with a laugh. "Can't get tackled at the 1 or 2. Got to find a way."

That's been the case for the Panthers as a whole, as they've patchworked a line together, and gotten the ground game to the point it needs to be in November and December. Last week's win in Arizona was more evidence they can, now they want to continue to build on it.

"When you win it's fun," McCaffrey said. "It's fun for a day. You have to get back. You can't ride the roller coaster. That's something the veterans on the team are trying to harp too. We don't want to be a roller coaster team that thrives off momentum. We want to be a consistent ball club, that just approaches it at a professional level every day.

"While those games are fun, and you win, it's important to stack not just games like that, but practices like that, film sessions like that and grow and get better."

View photos from Thursday's practice as Carolina prepares to take on Washington in Week 11.

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