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December is running back season

Jonathan Stewart, D'Onta Foreman

CHARLOTTE — Panthers offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo is a fan of games in December, and has talked about the different feeling it creates when there's a chill in the air — or better yet, rain or snow.

Thursday, he talked about the conditions turning the game into a one-on-one matchup situation, in which individual players can assert themselves.

People can talk all they want about how it's become a passing league, but in December, that often means the running backs — particularly when they're the kind of power backs the Panthers have had in the past and employ now.

"You have to mentally go into the game knowing I'm going to set the tone. Not just for my position, but for the entire team," former Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart said. "Especially in December, because that's when running backs either fade away or come alive.

"The reason guys come alive is they have that mindset of, I see blood in the water, and that means as the season goes, a defense is banged up, it's colder, they don't want to be out here. So I need to catch them sleeping before they wake up."

Jonathan Stewart

Stewart knows about that kind of pounding run game, since he built a career on a physical style. He remains the Panthers' all-time leading rusher (7,318 yards), and he had more of those yards in December (2,494) than any other month.

So he knows what it's about this time of year, and he likes what he's seen of his current counterpart.

Stewart said the way D'Onta Foreman is running behind a rebuilt Panthers offensive line reminds him of his prime, and can be the recipe for a 4-8 team to hang onto playoff chances.

"Yeah, they have the downhill, north and south mentality," Stewart said of the current Panthers team. "Which is, if the hole's there, take it. If it's not there, make something happen. So it's a little like, to be honest, the offensive line they have now is right there with the best of the lines I played with, guys like Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah.

"You go into a game; there's certain things you just know. You go to bed at night, and you dream about and anticipate this is the game that 38 Boss (an old stretch run play he did a lot of business with) is going to just pop. So it's just visualizing that going into the game."

Thinking about individual plays, and thinking about running the ball this time of year clearly brings back good memories for Stewart. And for Foreman, getting chances late in a season has become a thing for him.

Last year, he subbed for an injured Derrick Henry and helped carry the Titans to the playoffs with his between-the-tackles style. This year, he's helping the Panthers move on from the Christian McCaffrey era after the October trade that sent the standout running back to San Francisco. As good as McCaffrey was (and he was very good), Foreman's a different kind of running back.

And against a Seattle run defense which is 31st in the league in run defense (giving up 155.3 yards per game, and 205.0 per game the last three), that means opportunity.

"I just think when it gets colder outside, you start to run the ball more, you start pushing for the playoffs and making a run, that running the ball is always going to be effective," Foreman said. "I feel like if you're able to run the ball, it opens up a lot for your offense. The good teams, if they're able to run the ball, that works.

"The best teams are able to run the ball late in the year. I mean, unless you have like a Josh Allen or a Patrick Mahomes (at quarterback) that's going to throw the ball 50 times a game. If you've got a good running game, you've got a chance. . . . I definitely want it, definitely look forward to being in those situations and getting those opportunities."

The Panthers are happy to give him those opportunities because it's working. Foreman has gotten plenty of work, and he's making it count, with four 100-yard games in the last six (and the Panthers are 3-1 in those games).

"Well, I mean, it's no secret that I believe everything we do starts up front," Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks said. "And I think you have to have a good run game to be able to be successful. I know guys like to spread it out and throw the ball around. And we're going to do whatever it takes to win football games. And that's what we need to do. We will, but I believe in establishing the run and everything we do, as I said before, starts up front and then off that will create different elements of how we can attack them."

Foreman recalled last year's run with the Titans, and thinks there's a cumulative effect when you can run the ball, especially as defenses tire at the end of a long season.

"Once the game gets going late in the year, you can see if they're coming in to act like they're tackling but not really trying to tackle me," Foreman said with a laugh. "They come up to me like, 'Bruh, you're a big dude.' I don't usually hear that until after the game though.

"They come and try to fill those gaps hard early in the game, by the end, they're not coming as hard no more."

Of course, the Panthers aren't the only ones who try to built for this time of year. McAdoo said that from his background with Seahawks GM John Schneider (from their days together in Green Bay), he knows Seattle "likes them big, thick, and nasty," which makes this kind of game a tough one.

"I think teams kind of settle into who they are this time of year," McAdoo said. "At the beginning of the year, the first month or six weeks, you see some unscouted looks, some teams are trying new things, maybe trying to learn who they are. But when you get to this time of year, you know who you are, and you know who they are, and you can kind of just go out and play. That's what's exciting about it.

"When the elements come into play, it turns into more of a one-on-one matchup game, whether it's up front or on the perimeter. . . . So it's going to be a fun ball game."


Maybe not if you're the guy trying to stop a larger-than-average back, one who's coming at you over and over with the intent to control the clock.

While it was a mid-October game, Stewart remembers a long-ago (2015) trip to Seattle when the Panthers finally got past their losing streak there. Stewart ran 20 times for 78 yards and two touchdowns that day, but the Panthers were able to grind away at a championship-caliber Seahawks defense, with four 80-yard drives, including three in the second half.

Wilks showed clips of that game to his team this week. And while it's obviously different when you have an in-his-prime Cam Newton at quarterback, that kind of pound-the-rock team is who they want to be.

"You knew the more physical team was going to win," Stewart said with a grin. "Physically, for me, every game I go into, I have that mindset. My expectation is that I'm going to inflict pain on someone before they inflict pain on me.

"Because at the end of the day, everyone's going to get got. You have to make sure you're not on the wrong side of that."

And if you're a running back, in December, you have the chance to be the guy doing the getting.

Carolina has played Seattle nine times since 2013. The Seahawks lead the all-time series 10-4.

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