CHARLOTTE – The Panthers' running game posed a consistent threat to opposing defenses last season, topping the 100-yard mark in all but two games.
Sunday, the Panthers failed to reach 100 rushing yards for the second consecutive game. This week, unless last week, it cost them.
"We didn't run the ball very well," head coach Ron Rivera said Monday, one day after a 37-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in which Carolina rushed for 42 yards on 10 carries – the fewest attempts in franchise history. "When you average 4.2 yards per carry, you've got to try to stick with it.
"The thing that hurt us more so than anything else was that the direction of the game dictated that we throw the ball a little more than we would like to."
A laundry list of factors have slowed the run game, which grounded out 113 yards on 33 attempts in a season-opening victory at Tampa Bay but has since totaled 104 yards on 34 attempts.
The Panthers got away with modest rushing numbers in a Week 2 victory over the Detroit Lions thanks to a dominant defensive effort. But an uncharacteristically tough night against the Steelers for the Panthers' defense put Carolina in a hole that made it difficult to stick with the running game.
The Panthers also didn't stick with the running game in the early going of a tight game, even though they were facing a Steelers defense that entered play ranked 30th out of 32 NFL teams against the run.
Inconsistency and injuries played into that decision.
"You can't have an eight- or nine-yard run and then have a minus-three or four," Rivera said. "That's too inconsistent, and before you know it you're in second-and-long and trying to find ways to make up for that loss.
"When that happens, you lose a little bit of confidence. So when that happens, sometimes you have to go to something else to make something happen. Then in the third quarter, the game got away from us early on, and we got into a situation where we had to react to the situation."
Rivera said he was disappointed in the play up front, but injuries before and after the game impacted the effectiveness of play behind the line. Starting running back DeAngelo Williams missed his second consecutive with a hamstring injury, and next men up Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert both suffered leg injuries during the game.
Quarterback Cam Newton, who missed the season opener with a rib injury and missed parts of the preseason to rehab from offseason ankle surgery, has totaled 26 rushing yards on six attempts in his first two games back. Newton set NFL records for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns by a quarterback over his first three seasons.
So far, the Panthers are averaging 54 fewer rushing yards per game than last season. Newton is averaging 24 fewer rushing yards per game.
"A little bit of it has to do with our quarterback situation. We know that he was a big part of what we do," Rivera said. "He's going to take shots, but one thing we want to do this year is limit them.
"Right now, he's not quite where we need him, but he will get better. The thing we have to do in the meantime is pick it up."
This week, with injuries and inconsistency as the backdrop, Rivera knows the Panthers must plot ways to pick it up against a Baltimore Ravens defense that stands as one of eight units allowing less than 100 rushing yards per game.
"We as coaches have to put them in position to have success," Rivera said. "That's something we've got to look at."