CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Panthers are changing the way they utilize their high-priced tailbacks in hopes of igniting a stagnant running game.
Carolina has a combined $79.5 million invested — including $43.5 million guaranteed — in their tailback tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, yet quarterback Cam Newton is the team’s leader rusher.
Coach Ron Rivera said in an effort to shake things up the Panthers are moving away from their long-standing philosophy of rotating Williams and Stewart.
Rivera said the Panthers will instead look to “find one guy, develop a rhythm and if he gets hot, ride him” against Chicago Sunday.
“I want to see one guy pound and get a rhythm and then he gets tired and the other guy comes in,” Rivera said. “To me it’s hard for a back to get a rhythm when you’re coming out every other play.”
That philosophy essentially began last week against Dallas, although it was hard to notice as neither tailback got rolling in a 19-14 loss.
Stewart replaced Williams as the starter and finished with 35 yards on 10 carries. Williams played five snaps and carried twice for 4 yards.
Newton led the team in rushing with 64 yards.
Rivera said Stewart will start again Sunday against a physical Bears defense.
The Panthers began rotating running backs when Stewart first arrived on the scene as a first-round draft pick in 2008.
A year later they became the first running back tandem in league history to both eclipse 1,100 yards rushing in a season and nicknamed themselves “Double Trouble.”
But this year Carolina’s ground game has been anything but trouble.
If anything it’s been wildly inconsistent.
In the season opener against Tampa Bay, wide receiver Kealoha Pilares was the team’s leading rusher — and he carried once for 5 yards — and Newton has led Carolina in rushing in four of six games.
Only once has a tailback eclipsed 50 yards rushing in a game, that coming when Williams rushed for 69 yards in Carolina’s only win of the season against New Orleans in Week 2.
The Panthers are 13th in the league in rushing, largely because of Newton’s team-leading 273 yards rushing.
“We have to stick with it first and foremost,” Rivera said of the running game.
The Panthers will start Jeff Byers at right guard this week and Byron Bell will move back to his more comfortable right tackle spot as they look to move away from the zone read options and go to more of a traditional power running game.
“Without talking about what we want to do, we to do some things that these guys are capable and comfortable doing,” Rivera said.
Under now deposed general manager Marty Hurney the Panthers gave Williams a five-year, $43.5 million contract with $21 million in guaranteed money in 2011.
Then in the preseason the Panthers inked Stewart to a five-year, $36.5 million contract extension with $22.5 million guaranteed.
When asked if he now looks at those moves as mistakes given the NFL has shifted to more of a passing league, Rivera said, “People tell you need two good backs in this league. Philosophically going with the idea that you need two good backs we did what we felt like was good for us.”
Williams has been the team’s regular starting running back since 2008, but last week found himself on the bench.
And it didn’t seem to sit well.
After Sunday’s loss Williams took to Twitter and began retweeting fans’ comments about him not getting enough carries and not playing a big part of the offense.
Williams later tweeted it was not directed at anyone in the organization.
“I talked to (Williams) and explained it to him,” Rivera said about the move to start Stewart. “It’s like any pro, he understood it and didn’t agree with it and when he gets his chance he wants the ball. I appreciate that, I really do. It’s just the circumstances right now. We’re trying to build a rhythm so this is a chance to do something.”
Notes: DE Antwan Applewhite (hamstring) is out this week, while DE Thomas Keiser (elbow) is doubtful. Everyone else should be available, Rivera said. … The Panthers on Friday signed DT Nate Chandler from the practice squad and waived DT Frank Kearse. … Rivera said the team will wait until next week to activate WR David Gettis from the PUP list.
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