CHARLOTTE – Less than a year removed from a historic season in which Panthers running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart both topped 1,100 rushing yards, the duo isn't even on pace to combine for 1,400 yards.
No one, however, is pointing fingers at Williams or Stewart.
With the Panthers' passing game struggling, defenses are devoting a large percentage of their resources to stopping the run -- routinely putting eight defenders in the box and occasionally nine.
Until the Panthers prove they can throw the ball, it's going to be difficult to run the ball.
"We have a great running attack with DeAngelo and Stew, and I feel that the more pressure we get off them – because people like to put a lot of people in the box – the more successful we'll be as an offense," wide receiver David Gettis said. "We can be more precise with our routes and make plays – just catch every single pass that comes our way and be that threat to loosen up our run game."
With the return of wide receiver Steve Smith from an ankle injury and the decision to turn back to Matt Moore at quarterback for Sunday's visit by the San Francisco 49ers, the Panthers appear more prepared to pose a threat.
Moore doesn't have to throw for 300 yards to give the running game a chance – "it's just execution and keeping it simple," he said – but Moore does have to do enough with his arm to throw off the defense's emphasis on the running game.
"We're going to keep seeing that until can we get them to respect us a little bit more in the passing game," center Ryan Kalil said. "We had some explosive plays the last couple of seasons that made people respect that, but we haven't been decent in the passing game (this season)."
According to 49ers head coach Mike Singletary, however, the emphasis on stopping the run by Carolina's opponents might not change even if the Panthers find some success in the passing game.
That's meant more as a testament to the Panthers' talent in the backfield than it as an indictment of the their passing game.
"In order to give yourself a chance, you have to do something with the run," said Singletary, whose 49ers rank 19th in the NFL in run defense. "Even if you had a situation where you have stability at the quarterback position, those running backs jump out at you."
Carolina has shown -- albeit briefly – that it can run against a defense selling out to stop the run.
In their last game, against the Chicago Bears, the Panthers ran the ball on every single play of its opening drive. The approach netted 60 rushing yards, highlighted by a 24-yard run from Stewart and a 23-yarder from Williams, and resulted in a field goal.
Over the remainder of the game, however, Carolina gained just 25 rushing yards with the Bears bearing down even more on the run.
"We're going to see that from here on out," left guard Travelle Wharton said. "But for us, we just have to win our individual battles. If we can do that, we've got running backs that can run past people or run over people."