CHARLOTTE – For a Carolina offense seeking to establish a consistent running game, Sunday's matchup against the division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers provides a daunting challenge.
Tampa Bay enters Week 11 boasting the NFL's No. 1 rush defense, allowing just 80.1 yards per game.
"They are No. 1 for a reason against the run," Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert said. "We have our work cut out for us."
The Panthers found out how tough it is to run the ball on Tampa Bay back in the season opener, when Carolina recorded a franchise-low 10 rushing yards on 13 attempts.
"We expected a lot more of ourselves," Tolbert said. "We expect to be able to run the ball, and we didn't do it. We are going to try to remedy that this week."
The Panthers had tremendous success running against the Buccaneers last year, piling up 433 yards in the two meetings against a defense that wound up finishing last against the run.
Center Geoff Hangartner said first-year head coach Greg Schiano's system and a healthy Gerald McCoy (who did not play against Carolina last year due to injury) has made for a markedly improved Bucs' defensive front.
"They are a quite a bit different schematically. They move guys around a lot, they blitz a lot," Hangartner said. "They've got McCoy back, and he's had quite an impact on their defense. He's one of the better D-tackles in the NFC for sure, probably in the league. Having him back is definitely a big difference."
As effective as Tampa Bay is against the run, they're on the opposite end of the spectrum against the pass. The Bucs allow more passing yards (331.3 per game) than anyone.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said the Bucs' fast starts have played a role in that discrepancy, as teams have been forced to rely on the passing game after falling behind.
"They've gotten out to a couple early leads, and teams have had to throw the ball against them," Rivera said. "It's an opportunistic defense, for sure.
They do a lot of good things up front. They are physical at the point of attack.
"If you can get an early lead on them and get them in a different type of position, who knows what happens?"
The Panthers hope to find out Sunday.
"We just have to work at it," running back Jonathan Stewart said in regards to improving the run game. "Practice and practice and practice and just stay together. Eventually it'll turn around."
INJURY NOTES: Hangartner (knee), defensive tackle Dwan Edwards (ankle) and defensive end Antwan Applewhite (hamstring) did not participate in Wednesday's practice.
The team placed defensive end Thomas Keiser on injured reserve due to torn ligament in his left elbow.
"I had the same injury when I played, but I didn't have to push a guy every down like he does," Rivera said. "That was tough on him. It probably wasn't going to heal for a few more weeks and this was the best move for him, and it gives us an opportunity for an extra (roster) space."
Wide receiver Armanti Edwards (groin) was limited, as was guard Amini Silatolu, who was cleated in the ankle against the Broncos and has a sore shoulder.
Wide receiver Steve Smith, left tackle Jordan Gross and linebacker Thomas Davis were given the day off.