Strickly Panthers: Running game gets off ground

CHARLOTTE – For fans who watched the Panthers rack up rushing yards at a historical rate last season, the recent hint of success has them saying, "It's about time."

That's a sentiment shared by head coach John Fox, although he means it a different way.

"Like most run games and historically with ours, it takes a little time to develop," Fox said. "We had some new moving parts with a new fullback. Our tight ends have basically been the same, but three-fifths of our offensive line is different.

"Like everything else, it's kind of like the more you do with the same guys, the better you get, and it's always taken a little time to evolve. That would be my best explanation."

Recent numbers seem to back him up.

The Panthers rushed for 118 or more yards in just one of their first seven games, but now they've done it in each of the last three games. Last season, they rushed for 118 or more yards in just one of their first six games but then did so in nine of their final 10 games.

A year ago, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart finished strong to become the first teammates in NFL history to top 1,100 rushing yards apiece in the same season. This year, "Double Trouble" has been sidelined with injuries while second-year back Mike Goodson has led the charge.

"Because we had such a long list of 'featured backs,' the guy never really got much of an opportunity to show what kind of runner he was," Fox said of Goodson. "Mike worked very hard this offseason both to increase his size and strength, and obviously a better understanding of our run game as well as our pass protections has helped.

"The guy enjoys playing, which I deeply respect. He's gotten an opportunity that he's taken full advantage of, and I really like to see that."

Goodson has been good to be sure, but what does that say about Williams and Stewart? When healthy, they didn't produce a single 100-yard rushing game between them this season, something that Goodson has done each of the last two weeks.

"That's the question of the year," Panthers left guard Travelle Wharton said. "But for us up front, it's just about continuing to do our job and playing hard, no matter what. We just have to play hard and block the right people, then let our playmakers make plays."

Fox likely has the answer. While Goodson clearly is playing at a high level, the operation of the running game has gotten better with time, and Goodson happens to be the healthy back in position to take advantage.

Yes, the Panthers have shown progress running the ball in November, but it hasn't been nearly enough. They've barely reached the previously mentioned 118-yard plateau each of the last three weeks, topping out at 127 yards, while last year's team often zoomed by it, rushing for more than 200 yards three times.

Still, Goodson's 120-yard performance against the Ravens is a positive sign to be sure, given that just one other running back has managed 100 rushing yards against Baltimore's defense this season.

The Panthers will see the other one soon enough: Cleveland's Peyton Hillis, whose Browns host the Panthers this Sunday.

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