Physicality key to Panthers’ ground attack

Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert, and the always-threatening Cam Newton pose a hard-nosed challenge out of the Carolina backfield.

| 12 months ago
(AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

(AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

Physicality key to Panthers’ ground attack

The Panthers remain undefeated after their overtime win over the Colts on Monday Night Football. One of the biggest strengths of this team is its physicality. The Panthers’ are capable of imposing themselves on opponents with their power in the interior ground game. With a combination of potentially the best run-blocking interior trio and three beastly backs (Newton included in that count), Carolina wears down defenses on the ground. Let’s take a closer look at the key personnel in play.

Backfield beasts

A backfield comprised of Cam Newton, Jonathan Stewart, and Mike Tolbert is a scary proposition, with their combined 720 lbs an absolute nightmare for a would-be tackler. The advantage of having three physical downhill runners is that Carolina can keep each of them fresh, while tiring out the opposition. Rather than trying to use complimentary pieces, the Panthers have focused on building a specific identity, with similar players, and it’s a big reason they remain undefeated.

Jonathan Stewart is the workhorse. Over the past two years, he has just five negatively graded games. He’s currently our 10th overall running back this season, with 127 carries, 504 yards, and three touchdowns. Stewart also has 304 yards after contact, with 29 broken tackles. Those 29 broken tackles are the third most at the position, behind only Carlos Hyde and Doug Martin. It would be wrong to suggest Stewart is the most dominant back in the league—in fact, he graded negatively last night due to his fumble—but he is amongst the most physical.

The Panthers are a particularly difficult proposition when they run the zone read with Stewart and Newton in the backfield. Newton is our top-ranked QB in the ground game, having carried 51 times for 286 yards and four touchdowns (not including kneels and sneaks). He’s picked up 160 of those yards after contact, often asked to lower his shoulder on third down to keep drives alive. Only seven RBs average more than three yards after contact per attempt, illustrating the difficulty defenders have when trying to bring Newton down.

Fullback Mike Tolbert is having a slightly down season as a blocker, but he’s another threat with the ball in his hands—in fact, he owns the top run grade among FBs this season. Despite recording just 28 combined touches, he’s broken seven tackles, and is averaging 2.6 yards after contact. He’s incredibly useful in short yardage situations, where the Panthers often run QB lead, but also have the option of handing the ball off or using Tolbert in pass protection. Blitzing linebackers normally have a size advantage against backfield blocks, but Tolbert delivers hits, rather than taking them.

Dominant interior trio

The success of the Panthers’ run game is not only due to their ball carriers, however. It helps having probably the league’s best interior trio. Between the guards in 2015, the Panthers have carried 71 times for 322 yards at 4.5 yards per carry with four scores. Their two guards, Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell, both rank in the top 11 at the position this season, with Turner being the No. 7 run-blocking guard in the league.

Carolina fans will hope that Andrew Norwell’s injury last night is not serious, because Chris Scott and Amini Silatolu are not at the same level. The standout of the Panthers’ line is C Ryan Kalil (93.9, PFF’s No. 1 center). Kalil’s 95.2 run blocking grade is also way out in front. Fernando Velasco is an adequate replacement (74.6 overall grade), but the sooner the Panthers get back the league’s best, the better.

It was telling that the Panthers struggled to get enough first downs to close out the game on MNF. The changes on the offensive line played a part in that. When everyone is healthy, Carolina owns one of the most physical ground attacks in football.

| Analyst

John joined the PFF team in 2008, providing focused analysis on the NFL draft, team-building strategies, and positional value.

  • Bill Herring

    Glad to see your props for interior trio. No one else has reported that the problem MNF was their absence. No runner is good without blocking.

  • crosseyedlemon

    And somewhere Steve Smith is trying to convince people it’s just a coincidence the Panthers are playing so well now that they don’t have to cater to his overblown ego.

  • Paul Huff

    Steve is a complicated dude. He’s a great football player; plus, when he was in Charlotte, he did some fine things in the community. Unfortunately, what often makes him so tough as a football player (a huge ego with a Napoleonic complex) makes him a lousy team-player and a locker-room cancer.

    GM Gettleman knew what he was doing when he let Smith go.. It’s doubtful that the Panthers have the best talent in the NFL, but they might just have the best team chemistry. These guys fight for each other. It’s fun being a Panther fan.