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Run game gets in gear


CHARLOTTE - When the Panthers struggled to run the ball the first couple of weeks, the coaching staff didn't worry given the early effectiveness of the passing game.

Now that the running game appears to be up to speed as well, opposing coaches are the ones who have to worry.

"We've been improving," offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said. "The first couple of games defenses were loading on the box, but the last two we've had more opportunities to run the ball and better looks for running the ball.

"It has shifted, and I think it will continue to go back and forth. That's another reason why we're striving to be balanced with our attack."

Through three games, the Panthers ranked 24th in the NFL in rushing, grinding out 84 yards a game on average. Over the last two games, only three teams have gained more rushing yards than the 331 Carolina has totaled.

The Panthers now rank 13th in rushing (116.6 yards per game), an improvement that combined with their fifth-ranked passing attack (311.6) has them ranked fifth in total offense (428.2).

"We've definitely got to keep the run game going," left tackle Jordan Gross said heading into Sunday's road game against an Atlanta team that is seventh-best in the NFL at stopping the run. "It's been good the last two weeks, and we need to rely on that to eat up some clock and keep their offense off the field."

There's plenty of credit for the turnaround, starting with running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart but not ending there.

Quarterback Cam Newton has played a pivotal role on a couple of fronts, as has the offensive line charged with blocking for Newton and Co.

Newton's legs and his throwing arm have something to do with it. He's a key part of the rushing attack, gaining 160 yards on the ground – second to Michael Vick among NFL quarterbacks – while accounting for five of the Panthers' six rushing touchdowns. Perhaps even more important to the running game, however, is Newton's rapid development in the passing game.

Head coach Ron Rivera likened it to the time when his former employer, the San Diego Chargers, was working with a young quarterback named Philip Rivers.

"We had to develop our quarterback, and during that time in San Diego, the running game suffered," Rivera said. "Then all of a sudden it just came because the quarterback was developing and people started playing seven in the box or six in the box. All of a sudden you could run the ball because now there are those lanes.

"We're starting to see that here."

The offensive line has developed as well. The right side didn't have Jeff Otah (injury concerns) and Geoff Hangartner (signed as a free agent) in place until a few days before the season opener, and everybody down the line needed time to learn Chudzinski's system.


"I think that's a big part of it," Rivera said. "It's about guys getting on the field and playing together and coming together and developing that cohesiveness you need, that rapport. We're starting to get to that point."

With Newton and a new coaching philosophy, the days of the Panthers trying to win with their running game alone are over. Balance is now the name of the game, and the Panthers are passing and running their way to achieving that objective.

"We've made some strides," Hangartner said. "We're going a better job of blocking and the running backs are doing a great job of running."

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