CHARLOTTE – Injuries have pushed rookie quarterback Tony Pike to the brink of his first NFL start, against a Baltimore Ravens defense featuring notoriously hard-hitting linebacker Ray Lewis.
"And they're coming off a loss," Pike said. "And they've had a couple of extra days to prepare."
Given the circumstances, the Panthers' quarterbacks need the running game to be their best friend more than ever. But given the circumstances that have befallen the running backs, the offense will be leaning on a unit that's lean as well.
It's a scary scenario, but the running backs still standing plan on playing fearless football.
"It's getting thin, but Coach Skip does a good job of coaching all the running backs up," said fullback Tony Fiammetta, one of the few backs to stay healthy all season for running backs coach Jim Skipper. "Whoever we've got out there is going to be well-prepared and ready to do some damage on Sunday."
It's still not clear who will be good to go Sunday. What is clear is that leading rusher Ryan Kalil is gone for the season, moved to injured reserve Wednesday with a foot injury.
Running mate Christian McCaffrey (concussion) and veteran Tyrell Sutton (ankle) missed last week's game and missed practice Wednesday, leaving Fiammetta, Mike Goodson and recent addition Josh Vaughan as the only runners on the active roster well enough to practice.
The strange thing is, even with the rash of injuries, the running game arguably is as healthy as it's been all season. Goodson became the first Carolina back to rush for 100 yards this season in last week's loss at Tampa Bay, and Vaughan scored a rushing touchdown in his NFL debut as the team rushed for more than 100 yards for the second consecutive game after reaching the century mark just twice over its first seven games.
"There were just a lot of holes," said Goodson, a second-year back who had 99 career rushing yards before gaining 100 against the Buccaneers. "Most people just see me running. They don't see the fullback blocking and the line blocking.
"There were a lot of holes out there, so hopefully we come out Sunday and have the same kind of movement around the ball and the same kind of day."
Goodson clearly is running with confidence, and Vaughan vows to be a more confident runner against the Ravens. Vaughan, who gained 7 yards on three carries in his NFL debut, admitted to being a little overwhelmed by the moment.
"I was a little nervous," Vaughan said. "Now all the jitters are out, so I believe I'll be able to play a lot faster this week, to just go all out."
That's the kind of thing Pike likes to hear. If his number is called Sunday, he needs the backs to run strong so that he doesn't have to run for his life against the relentless Ravens.
"We're sitting here with one win and almost half the guys who we started with on the active roster are injured now," Pike said. "It's hard, but guys have got to look at it as a chance to showcase what they can do."