CHARLOTTE — The Panthers' struggles on third down this year have been as serious as they are obvious, as a passing game incorporating a new quarterback just before training camp hasn't quite caught up to where it needs to be.
If anything, that almost makes the way they've been able to run this season even more impressive.
The Panthers are 13th in the league in rushing offense, and Christian McCaffrey is coming off back-to-back 100-yard rushing games for the first time since 2019. For a team that hasn't even averaged 60 snaps in a game, that's something of an accomplishment.
They're also 30th in the league in third-down conversions, a 27.0 percent rate that's not conducive to extended drives.
"You get tired of saying it, but we've got to convert some third downs and stay on the field," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said Monday. "I think that's when you really start to see the run game take effect on people.
"For us to run the ball for the yards the last two games without converting third downs usually doesn't happen. This game was different. Last week was one big run; this was a lot of really efficient runs."
Rhule said he was encouraged by Chuba Hubbard's work (three carries for 25 yards, including a 14-yarder which saw him spin out of contact and grip the ball the way coaches teach you to in clinics). D'Onta Foreman didn't get a carry against the Saints, but got a couple against the Giants.
McCaffrey, meanwhile, had 15 carries for 102 yards against New York (including the aforementioned 49-yarder) and 25 carries for 108 yards against the Saints.
"They're there," Rhule replied when asked if he wanted to get the other two backs more involved. "Chuba was another real bright spot; I thought he had two really good runs. The one run he had where he got hit, spun out, and ran 10 or 12 yards. He protected the football at a high level. I'd love to get D'Onta rolling. It just hasn't worked out yet. He's practicing well; we know he can be a weapon for us.
"I'd like to get those guys involved. It's hard to take Christian off the field."
Those last two facts are related, as they want to be mindful of McCaffrey's workload but also know he's their best offensive player.
He takes a low-key approach to his own numbers, but McCaffrey was quick to praise the offensive line for the way they've opened holes for all of them. The Panthers have been fortunate that their five starters have played every snap of every game so far, and McCaffrey can see the progress that group has made.
"Those guys block their ass off, man," he said Sunday. "They work hard every single day. And I honestly have got to do a better job of making them look better on a few of these carries. We are going to continue to work, but I am so proud of those guys and lucky to have them in front of me."
— The Panthers tried to treat Sunday's win as normally as they could (the goal is for it to not feel rare), but Rhule admitted it meant a lot to him for the players to present him a game ball after the win over the Saints.
Rhule laughed and said he had a feeling it was coming when he saw quarterback Baker Mayfield approach him with the ball.
"It's not really what I wanted; I want the game to always be about the players. That being said, I told the team it was a tremendous honor. As a coach, I've never really seen that before. So I appreciated that those guys wanted to go out and validate me as a coach or whatever and stood up for me. But at the end of the day, it's not about me; it's really not.
"I told them today; I don't want you to make it about me. I want you to make me right. I believe in this team. I've said it; this team is close. I've said you guys were a good team. I've told you guys you just need to make a couple more plays. It's the same team that blocked a field goal; it's the same team that a 340-pound man (Derrick Brown) dove out and intercepted a ball. We executed better and really made the plays to finish the game."
— Defensive end Henry Anderson, who blocked a field goal in Sunday's win over the Saints, admitted he loves the change of pace on those plays.
Ordinarily, offensive linemen are trying to double-team defensive linemen. On field goal block, it's the other way around, with them trying to throw as many bodies as possible at a small amount of space.
"I think for the guys on the field goal team that are trying to protect, it's probably a lot harder," Anderson said. "So they probably don't like it as much. For me, I think it's easier. I'm going three steps and then putting my hand up, and the play's over. I'm not running, or trying to run around an offensive tackle and go pursue 20 yards down the field to the ball. It's definitely a violent play. You're trying to come off with as much violence as you can and stay as low as you can, and I'm trying to knock him (back). He's still a big dude, those guys are still 300-plus pounds, so I'm trying to hit him as hard as I can and knock him back a few yards. But it's definitely a violent play."
Panthers Hall of Honor left tackle Jordan Gross has always said his least favorite snaps were extra points, but field goals are right up there since they generally come at the ends of drives, and offensive linemen are kind of stationary targets.
"The guys on the field goal team, it's a pretty ugly job they have to do, because they've just got a bunch of dudes running straight into them," Anderson said. "They're getting knocked on their ass, so it's not the most fun for them. I kind of like it because I'm just getting off (the snap) and trying to drive you back. It's better than getting double-teamed by a couple of offensive linemen."
View the best photos from the pre-game, warmups and game action in Week 3 between Carolina and New Orleans.