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The Day After: Creating a personality up front


CHARLOTTE — When D'Onta Foreman was getting a game ball Thursday night, he did what a good running back should do — he thanked his offensive line.

But more than any particular blocks or touchdowns, Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks was talking about that group's personality on Friday afternoon when he looked back at the tape of their 25-15 win over the Falcons.

The Panthers turned it into a statement game for the physical style he wants to play, running 47 times for 232 yards.

"I think it's just really the mindset that I wanted to try to create up front," Wilks said. "It starts up front from the standpoint of running the ball, trying to create the element that we just got to be hard-nosed and tough and physical. And we've really adopted that philosophy."

So while Foreman got a lot of love (and perhaps a beer shower when he went into the seats), and Laviska Shenault Jr. made the highlight reel for his 41-yard touchdown, the larger people were integral to both.

Long before Wilks took over, the Panthers put an emphasis on improving their offensive line this offseason, using their first-round pick in left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, and signing two starters in free agency in right guard Austin Corbett and center Bradley Bozeman. They joined right tackle Taylor Moton and left guard Brady Christensen on what has become a stable unit (the only change this year has been Bozeman replacing Pat Elflein in the middle after five games), and that's the kind of thing Wilks wants to build on. They've also used backup tackle Cameron Erving as a sixth lineman more in recent weeks, adding to the heft, and the persona Wilks wants to bring.

"Well, I think number one, we start across the board, I think those guys are extremely smart," Wilks said Friday of his linemen. "And if you really watch them, how they communicate and ID formations and alignments and the mike linebacker, that, to me is where it starts. And you look at, you know, how we pull and get on the perimeter, you know, even Ickey when he gets outside. I mean, he's extremely athletic. And we knew that's what he really brought from NC State was that run blocking, that bad-boy mentality. And, you know, Corbett coming from the Rams, you know, just bringing again, that identity. You got Bozeman up front leading the charge. So they definitely create the mantra that I'm looking for."

His intent in letting them lead the way is clear.

In the six games before the Panthers traded running back Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers (including Wilks' first game in charge in Los Angeles), they averaged 21 rush attempts per game. In the last four games, they've averaged 32 rushing attempts per game (and that includes getting just 18 in Cincinnati when the entire offense flatlined and they fell in a huge hole early).

So while the rushing yards are a nice number to look at — and Thursday's 232 were a season-high — their ability to sustain drives and stay on the field takes some dirty work. The Panthers converted six third-down attempts Thursday, the most in any game this year. They have been bad in that area all season, but the way they have run the ball lately, it takes some of the pressure of the passing game to be in unfortunate down-and-distance situations.

It might not be flashy, but for them, at this moment, it's working.

And the work they put in up front this offseason has made a big difference.

— Wilks did not offer any updates on injured players from Thursday's game.

Cornerback Donte Jackson (Achilles) and defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis (calf) were getting MRIs Friday, and Wilks hadn't gotten the report from the athletic training staff back yet when he talked to reporters.

Wide receiver DJ Moore left the game briefly to be checked for a head injury (after the league spotter asked for that to happen), but he was cleared and returned to the game.

— As you might expect, Wilks was not inclined to make a change at quarterback, saying the plan was to continue with PJ Walker.

He did say he'd take this weekend's "mini-bye" to consider all the options. Baker Mayfield backed up Walker Thursday night, but other than some helmet-less head-butting of some teammates after the game, he didn't do much. Sam Darnold was inactive as the third quarterback.

"We'll continue to evaluate the quarterback position, and I'll meet with those guys on Monday and give those guys clarity as we move forward," he said.

He said the decision would ultimately come down to a particular week's game plan.

"So when evaluating that and trying to make a decision, that's when I would come back and figure out a question, what do we need to do at the quarterback position?" Wilks said. "I think, exactly where we are right now at that position, it's still an ongoing process where you got to evaluate certain things. Would you like to have someone that you know is definitely your number one guy that you can commit to? Of course. But I think we have three good options, and I want to make sure that I put this team in the best position to be successful."

— For the second time this year, Wilks has come into a press conference repping his alma mater.

He wore Appalachian State gear earlier this season, and had a West Charlotte High t-shirt on Friday afternoon. He's clearly proud of his Lions, and said he was trying to get to their playoff game tonight against Hibriten.

View the best in-game photos from Carolina's Week 10 game against the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday Night Football.

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