CHARLOTTE – Christian McCaffrey is Carolina's greatest strength.
He leads the league in rushing yards per game (105.9) and scrimmage yards per game (157.6). He also leads the league in rushing touchdowns (11) and total touchdowns (14). As a team, Carolina's 5.10 yards per rush attempt is second-best.
"Obviously we're a really good running team. We've got the best back in the league. We run block well, we have a great scheme," tight end Greg Olsen said. "But it doesn't matter when you're down 20-0 (against Atlanta) and it didn't matter against San Francisco when we rushed for 160 and were down by 30."
Olsen went on to explain further.
"In order to make (Christian) super effective, we need to be in the lead or the game cannot be out of reach," he said.
Olsen is getting at something that has really come into focus for the Panthers as of late. Second-year quarterback Kyle Allen, set to make his 10th career start at New Orleans this Sunday, has struggled in situations when Carolina has trailed by multiple scores. The entire offense has struggled in that situation.
"If you break it down, the four games we've won – the four games where Kyle threw zero interceptions – we were ahead in all those games throughout the entire game," offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. "The games where we've fallen behind has obviously been a totally different picture. You've got to learn how to play in a game like that. That's part of the growing process."
"When we get behind I think we press a little bit," head coach Ron Rivera said. "It changes the approach sometimes out of necessity. And I think there maybe is something to do with inexperience."
Allen attempted a career-high 50 passes in last week's 29-3 loss to Atlanta. That's not ideal. The week prior, he attempted 43 passes in the 24-16 loss at Green Bay.
The more Allen is throwing it, the less McCaffrey is running it. And clearly the Panthers want to be able to feed one of the best offensive weapons in the league.
When the Panthers are in catch-up mode, the balance is thrown off and McCaffrey's influence decreases. That's not a winning formula. In fact, Carolina has totaled at least 27 rushing attempts in all five wins. They haven't rushed more than 23 times in any of the five losses. Last week, it was a season-low 15 rush attempts versus the Falcons.
"Our strengths being our run game and then our play-action and our protections based off that kind of become obsolete," Olsen said.
Think about the games where McCaffrey has ripped off those game-breaking long runs.
At Arizona: McCaffrey's 76-yard TD run in the 3rd quarter made it 28-20.
Vs. Jacksonville: McCaffrey's 84-yard TD run in the 3rd quarter made it 28-17.
Vs. Tennessee: McCaffrey's 58-yard TD run in 4th quarter made it 30-14.
All of those games resulted in Carolina victories. All of those carries took place in the second half of games where the Panthers were able to maintain balance offensively. Eventually, they were able to pop one.
"When we're at our best, we're balanced," Turner said. "When we get chunk plays out of the passing game, somewhere along the way Christian breaks a long run."
"That's what's unique about us," Olsen said of McCaffrey's ability to hit home runs in the run game. "But the circumstances of the game have to fit that model."
So, we're left with a question entering Week 12. Can the Panthers remain balanced against the Saints to get the most out of their star running back?
It's going to require a fast start in a hostile environment. Otherwise, we all know how quickly New Orleans can stretch a lead.
"That's not earth-shattering," Olsen said. "That's on us collectively as a team playing complementary football."