ATLANTA — Over a week ago, the Panthers promised they were going to run the ball more.
Even though it was a week late, they delivered on Sunday.
The Panthers left Atlanta with a 19-13 win by running the ball early, often, and successfully. That left them relieved and tired, if not jubilant after the game.
"It feels good right now," running back Chuba Hubbard said. "It might not feel too good tomorrow, but it felt good today."
Hubbard had 24 carries for 82 yards and the game-deciding touchdown in the fourth quarter, to lead a balanced attack.
Quarterback Sam Darnold did his part before leaving with a concussion, running eight times for 66 yards. And with newcomer Ameer Abdullah (8-31) and Royce Freeman (6-25) doing their part, the Panthers were able to lean on a team like they haven't in years.
"I felt like we had a lot of dog in us today, to be honest," backup quarterback PJ Walker said. "A lot of guys were out there playing hard, playing physical and I think that's the key to running the football."
Their total 47 rushes for 203 yards were the most since head coach Matt Rhule took over last season. In fact, the 47 attempts were the fourth-most in franchise history, and it was their first 200-yard game since they piled up 285 against Jacksonville in Week 5 of 2019.
It's worth noting that Christian McCaffrey was a part of that one, but not Sunday. He's eligible to return from injured reserve as soon as next week against the Patriots (though they won't know whether he'll be able to until they see him practice Wednesday).
But the way the offense had struggled without him the last four weeks, having this kind of output without him was the kind of statement they needed to make.
"It was awesome, man," veteran left tackle Cameron Erving said. "To see a lot of guys go out there and getting their opportunities. Of course, we're ready for Christian to come back, whenever that time is, whenever he's healthy. but in the meantime, all we can do is what we can do, which is execute every play that Joe (Brady) calls for us."
They did just that Sunday, able to put together three drives of 15 plays or more. That's what they were hoping to do the previous week against the Giants, but they didn't, running just 17 times the entire game after Rhule said the team wanted to establish a new identity.
"I thought it was kind of the game plan going in and kind of what we wanted to do last week and we didn't really kind of never got it going," Rhule said. "I think sometimes weeks like last week happened for you to go back and really self-reflect and say, 'Hey, we say we're going to do these things. Are we going to do them?'
"We had some bloody runs, we had some second down runs and went for it to get some third downs, and quarterback sneaks. Find a bunch of different ways to try to do it. You can only do that when you're converting third downs. I thought we were excellent on third down. And Sam gave us a lot of plays with his legs, which we knew was going to be important. So, we've talked a lot about it today. We finally did. First time since I've been here we ran for 200 yards, so it's a step in the right direction."
Rhule talked about Abdullah being "an absolute jolt of energy for us," and acknowledged that 47 rush attempts was an extreme outlier (his target is usually around 33 attempts per game). But after so many recent questions about Brady as a play-caller, and the status of the offensive line (which also didn't allow a sack for the first time this season), Rhule was relieved to take the positive step.
"This is what it took today, and we're going to face another team that's going to put nine guys at the line of scrimmage. You're going to have to be able to throw and catch it," Rhule said. "Every game has its own game if they react to what happens in that game. So it was good for today.
"I can't wait to have Christian back, but I'm certainly not going to start thinking about moving forward. To me, this is what we did today. It's probably what we should've done last week and the week before. There's a lot of reasons for that, but I'm proud of our coaches. Joe took a lot of heat, . . . When you run for 200 yards in the NFL, the O-line played well, and so I'm happy for those things."
View photos from Atlanta as the Panthers take on the Falcons in Week 8.