CHARLOTTE — The Panthers needed to run the ball last weekend for a lot of reasons.
Mostly, to prove to themselves and to others that they could.
But as they get closer to the lifeblood of their offense returning (running back Christian McCaffrey was designated to return from IR this week), they want to continue to spread it around the way they did in Atlanta.
And if that means getting a little "bloody," so be it.
As the Panthers talked about last week's 47-carry (they keep calling it 46 because backup quarterback PJ Walker kneeled out the clock on the final play), 203-yard ground attack in Atlanta, they kept talking about the importance of "bloody runs."
Even offensive coordinator Joe Brady — who would probably rather throw it that many times a game if he had his preference — couldn't help but smile when asked about them.
"It's one of those runs, you run it, and it's second-and-8 or second-and-7, and you have a natural tendency to sit there and say 'Hey we're not moving the ball,'" he began. "But a 3-yard run turns into a 6-yard run. And as the game goes on, you have enough, hoping you can pop a big one. They're not the quote-unquote prettiest ones, we all want first-and-10 and an 8-yard run, so we're in second-and-2, but in order to have sustained success running the football, you're going to have to live with 2-yard runs, 3-yard runs.
"Those are going to open up things as the game goes along. Especially in the fourth quarter, you can't just get away from it."
That game plan — which isn't going to be the way they win every week, but it's certainly what they needed in Atlanta — serves a number of purposes.
It takes some pressure off a passing game that had struggled. It allows an offensive line that had issues in protections to lean on someone for a change. That's why their eyes light up when they talk about it.
"Those are still the types of runs that affect guys on defense because they get hit," veteran left tackle Cameron Erving said. "Of course we enjoy that. As an O-lineman, we go against some of the best athletes on the field in defensive ends. And while I look forward to blocking and competing against guys who are great players, it's always good to go out there and run the ball, and take some pressure off the quarterback, take it off the receivers.
"Now they have to play us honest, and get back to the defenses we want to pass against."
The Panthers certainly were able to do that last week, by putting together three separate drives of at least 15 plays. That gave their own defense a chance to breathe, with defensive coordinator Phil Snow marveling at the fact they only had to play 50 snaps (the average is around 68 in a game). For the Falcons, it was a matter of attrition, as the Panthers were able to sustain a run game even after rookie running back Chuba Hubbard fumbled on the first snap, and his late touchdown that sealed it was a fitting bookend.
Brady again brightened when asked about the play of their oft-maligned offensive line, knowing it was a win they needed.
"I loved it. I loved that they were consistent with it," Brady said. "They showed some physicality, some finish to them, it was one of those games you've got to come, and there's a lot of bloody runs. A lot of 3-yard runs, 4-yard runs, but they get you into manageable third downs.
"I loved their execution. I love that they responded from the first play of the game. Put the ball on the ground first play, but no heads down, get the ball back, get it into Chuba's hands and run the ball and start the next drive. Love the way they responded last week."
This week presents a different challenge, and they know it.
Playing Bill Belichick and the Patriots defense means that you know the other guys are going to try to take away what you're best at.
Erving knows first-hand what it looks like. When he was in his second year in 2016, his Browns teams were averaging 149.3 rushing yards per game through the first four games. In Week 5 against the Patriots, they were held to 27 yards on 22 carries. As Erving explained, they hadn't seen the Patriots running many Bear fronts (five defensive linemen controlling gaps) to that point, but they did that game, and basically punched the Browns square in the face.
"It's the same style of defense; they want to bloody you up, they want to be physical, their linebackers want to play downhill," Erving said of New England's style in general. "And coach Belichick, to his credit, is one of the best ever. He knows how to scheme it up and take what you do well away from you.
"Us as an offense, we have to know he does specific things to take away your strengths, and he wants to beat you one specific way. So I don't really think it's like people are nervous, but you definitely respect the level of coaching you're going against when you're playing Belichick."
The Panthers also want to continue to mix up the running game for another important reason.
If McCaffrey is able to return (this week or whenever), they want to continue to use multiple backs.
In the first two games, McCaffrey touched the ball 59 times, to Hubbard's 10.
Last week, Hubbard led the way with 24 carries, but they also got contributions from Ameer Abdullah (in the running and passing game) along with Royce Freeman and Sam Darnold himself.
"The fortunate thing over the last few weeks, and I know wins and losses are all that matters, but seeing Chuba continue to get more and more comfortable, seeing Ameer come along, seeing Royce have some big runs last week, feeling comfortable with that running back room.
"As unfortunate as it is that Christian hasn't been there, it's given other guys an opportunity to show what they can do and show they can play this game at a high level. So whenever Christian is able to come back, being able to integrate them in there so we don't have to rely on Christian as much. So whenever that is the case, we have to figure out how we're going to personnel this, in terms of number of touches and whatnot, but those are good problems to have, whenever Christian is back."
Brady said they hadn't discussed a particular number of touches they'd target for McCaffrey (at least not that he'd share), but it's reasonable to assume it would be smaller.
Yet they have to balance that with the reality that when he's out there, he's really good at football, and putting the ball in the hands of your best player is generally a good idea, regardless of position.
"Whenever he's out there, he's one of the best football players in football, so you have to be mindful, the defense is mindful of him every time he's out there too," Brady said. "When he's out there, you're a better football team, but you have to be mindful of how much he is out there."
Brady said that seeing other guys perform has given him more confidence in the entire running backs room, "but it hasn't changed my perspective" on how to handle the running game in general.
But after Atlanta, they can't help but feel like this is something they can do.
"I think every team's goal is to run the ball 46 times a game," Hubbard said. "Having a talented running back group like we do, you only hope for stuff like that. Whether it's me, Ameer, Christian, Reggie (practice squader Reggie Bonnafon), whoever, I feel like anybody can carry the ball and carry the load and do a good job with it."
View photos from Thursday's practice inside the Atrium Health Dome as the Panthers get ready to host New England on Sunday.