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Run game hoping to provide a spark on offense

Miles Sanders

CHARLOTTE — It wasn't quite "Smash and Dash" levels of success, but the Panthers' offense showed promise on the ground against Dallas in Week 11.

In its first three games after the Week 7 bye Carolina twice failed to reach 50 rushing yards. Despite last Sunday's loss to the Cowboys, the Panthers' 110 yards on the ground were an encouraging sign for a team that has ranked near the bottom of the league in several offensive categories in 2023. It was just the third time they eclipsed the century mark over the past eight weeks.

Throughout franchise history, Carolina's best teams have normally shared the same identity on offense: Running teams ragged on the ground and sprinkling in some big plays in the passing game. And as they try to shake off a 1-9 start this season, the way they ran last week provided something they hope can be a spark down the stretch.

"We're a run-first team. That's the type of identity we want," running back Miles Sanders said. "The guys have really practiced their butts off, and they've gone out and played their butts off. That's all I can really ask for."

Chuba Hubbard

Entering Week 12, the Panthers rank 26th in the NFL in total carries on 1st-and-10 (107), and last in the league in rushing yards gained on 1st-and-10 (339). The lack of push on early downs has caused Carolina to get behind the chains more often than not, and that has only increased the pressure on rookie quarterback Bryce Young to make plays on later downs.

In the first three quarters against the Cowboys in Week 11, the Panthers ran the ball more than 65 percent of the time when faced with a 1st-and-10. 

Head coach Frank Reich said this week he wants to build off the team's success in the run game but cautioned that the game plan could change from week to week.

"We're always looking at what being patient in the run game looks like," Reich said. "How do we complement it with the play-action stuff? And then, how do we lay it out over the course of the game? Those are week-to-week decisions, but it's always a very relevant question."

What will undoubtedly help the running game's cause going forward is the resurgence of Sanders, who had one of his best statistical performances of the season (11 carries, 50 yards) in Week 11 after spending the first few months of the year dealing with nagging injuries. He also had a critical fourth-down conversion on their long touchdown drive, which was at least a sign they trust him in those situations.

Sanders said that Sunday's game was the first time this season he felt back to his old self — back to the guy who ran for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns for the Eagles in 2022. While he acknowledged that he hasn't quite lived up to expectations since arriving in Charlotte, the fourth-year back knows he has the support of the locker room and is ready to turn things around now that he's finally healthy.

"The guys are just happy to see me keep my head down and keep going to work," Sanders said. "I didn't start out the way I wanted to. I know I haven't been playing my best. They brought me over here for a reason."

But as we know, Carolina's backfield isn't a one-headed monster. It rarely is. While Sanders was the big free agent signing this offseason, the Panthers' leading rusher in 2023 so far has been third-year back Chuba Hubbard, who has totaled 408 yards on 104 carries.

The committee approach has long been the way the Panthers have structured their backfield, and often where they have found the most success running the football. In the 2000s, you had Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster. In the 2010s, you had DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Hubbard has been part of committee backfields the previous two seasons here, helping fill in for an injured Christian McCaffrey in 2021 and splitting time with D'Onta Foreman in 2022. While many guys might be clamoring for more touches, Hubbard has embraced his role and is excited about the group the Panthers have in the building now.

"I've been fortunate enough to be around some great guys like Christian and D'Onta," Hubbard said. "Miles is a game-changer, a great guy, he works hard. He has a great skillset. He does whatever we ask him to do on the field. He's a great leader and leads by example."

Chuba Hubbard, Miles Sanders, Tommy Tremble

But it's not just the running backs getting in on the fun. So, too, are the tight ends. Led by Tommy Tremble and Ian Thomas, Carolina had most of its success against Dallas running the ball out of "12" personnel — featuring one running back, two tight ends and two receivers.

While it's not the most glamorous job in the world, the group has embraced it — especially Tremble. Of the 45 snaps he played against the Cowboys, 20 of those were blocking snaps. And of the 20 blocking snaps, 18 were on run plays. His 72.9 run block grade, according to Pro Football Focus, was his highest grade in a game since having a 79.9 in Week 17 last year against Tampa Bay.

"I love it. I love helping my team succeed," Tremble said. "I didn't go to college as a blocker. I showed up at 200 pounds and left at 225. I was never the ideal blocker in terms of size, but I'll put my heart on the field, man. I love helping the team any way I can."

View photos from the Panthers' practice on Wednesday as they prepare to face the Tennessee Titans.

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