CHARLOTTE — The Panthers don't know at the moment if running back Christian McCaffrey will be able to play this week or not.
But whenever he does return to the lineup, they'd like to keep the offense looking like it did in Atlanta.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said that McCaffrey's availability for Sunday's game against the Patriots would depend on how he progressed through their return-to-play protocol, and how he held up in practice this week.
"Hopefully this week, if not, next week," Rhule said of the status of his star running back, who is eligible to return from injured reserve. He was placed on IR in Week 6 when a hamstring injury didn't respond well in practice, following his initial injury in Week 3.
The Panthers used four different ball carriers Sunday (Chuba Hubbard 24 attempts, Ameer Abdullah eight, Royce Freeman six, and Sam Darnold eight), and Rhule said he'd like to continue that when McCaffrey returns.
McCaffrey touched the ball 59 times in the first two games, and Hubbard had just 10 touches in those two games.
Rhule said that when McCaffrey was back, they'd like to see more of a distribution of labor based on what he saw in Atlanta.
"Take Christian out of it," Rhule said. "If you have guys you trust, I thought Royce played a good game for us, was physical, downhill, got hit a couple of times at 4 yards and ran for 6 or 7. I thought Ameer brought a jolt to us, catching the ball out of the backfield, screens and runs.
"To me, it's not just about Christian; it's about those guys have really emerged for us, and we want them all to play. So we'll see where Christian's at this week. But I think just in general with him coming back, forget about what's happened, I want to see Chuba Hubbard on the field too, and Ameer on the field too. It's a good problem to have."
— After Rhule said earlier Monday that the reality of the situation is that the Panthers were "a defensive team," considering all the investments on that side of the ball, safety Jeremy Chinn said that players were already thinking that way.
"That's always been our mindset, just looking to put things in our own hands," Chinn said. "That's no discredit to any other side of the ball. But that's our mindset as a defensive unit. Like if our offense puts any points on the board, that we have an opportunity to win the game. So that's our mindset going into every game."
Asked if that put a certain burden on them, Chinn replied: "Nah. There's no pressure. I don't feel any pressure, and I don't think the other guys do either."
— Rhule opened his press conference Monday by singling out two things from Sunday's win over the Falcons which he thought were helpful — kicker Zane Gonzalez and the traveling contingent of fans who made the trip to Mercedes Benz Stadium.
Gonzalez hit all four of his field goal attempts, including a career-best 57-yarder, and Rhule called it "one of the key factors in the game."
There were also a solid number of locals who made the trip down I-85.
"I thought our fans there were awesome," Rhule said. "There was a large contingency there. Know it was Halloween, but there were a lot of people there with Panthers jerseys on, and walking off the field, there was a whole group. I want to thank those fans. When we've been on the road, there have been a lot of people."
View all of the best photos from pre-game, in-game and post-game from Carolina's win at Atlanta.