CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart took the pitch left on Thursday night and was immediately greeted by Philadelphia safety Malcolm Jenkins 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Stewart escaped that tackle, but then he faced three other defenders running clean through the line. He ultimately found himself under a pile of six Eagles, with not a blocker within arm’s length.
Afterward, Stewart appeared frustrated as he stood and stared at coaches on the sideline.
“No more than anybody else would be,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said Friday before the Panthers (4-2) began a three-day break. “The biggest thing is we’ve got to not have the negative runs, the runs for losses. We want to make sure we take care of that.”
The Panthers had six negative runs, including three by Stewart, against the Eagles. This came a week after they had nine (eight by Stewart) against Detroit.
“We flat-out missed some blocks,” coach Ron Rivera said.
This wasn’t what Rivera envisioned after a preseason loss at Tennessee when he was more impressed with a 4-yard run by Stewart than a 38-yard catch and run by rookie running back Christian McCaffrey.
He made it clear that was what he wanted the offense to be about.
“It was a very physical-natured play,” Rivera said. “The offensive line fired off, got the good surge, Jonathan gets a crease and picked up 4 good yards. That’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for that physical, tough running presence that Jonathan gives.”
Jonathan Stewart has only 17 yards on 26 carries in the past two games, including minus-4 yards on eight carries against the Eagles on Thursday. Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports
The Panthers have been anything but that the past two games against Detroit and Philadelphia. Running backs have averaged less than a yard per carry (29 on 34 attempts) in those games. They had 1 yard on 13 attempts in Thursday night’s 28-23 loss to the Eagles. Without quarterback Cam Newton during this span, the running game would be almost non-existent. He had 71 of the team’s 108 total yards in those two games. (The Panthers had just 80 total yards against Detroit and 28 against Philadelphia.)
The last time the Panthers had consecutive performances with less than 100 yards rushing was the ninth and 10th games last season, when they ran for 99 yards against Kansas City, followed by 50 against New Orleans.
The latest two-game total of 108 yards is the team’s lowest since the second and third games of the 2014 season, when Carolina had 62 yards against Detroit and 42 against Pittsburgh for a combined 104.
Two weeks later, the Panthers went on a run of 35 straight games — including five playoff games — with at least 100 yards.
They topped that mark in all 19 games during the 2015 season, including the loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50.
“We’ve got to be better across the board,” Shula said. “We’ve got good run-blockers, we’ve got good schemes. That’s never been an issue and I don’t see that being an issue.
“But we want to make sure we get that back in good balance for sure.”
If Stewart is frustrated, you can’t blame him. He’s averaging 41.2 yards rushing and 2.9 yards per carry. He has only 17 yards on 26 carries in the past two games, including minus-4 yards on eight carries against the Eagles.
Stewart has a career average of 4.3 yards per carry.
The Panthers don’t believe the issue is Stewart, who at 30 is at an age when the production of running backs typically falls off.
But they do have an issue with the negative plays. It figured into a decision to pass on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 with just under a minute left from the Philadelphia 48.
Both were incomplete. One was tipped with tight end Ed Dickson wide open, and the other was just off target to McCaffrey, who had room to run because a defender jumped up and threw Newton’s timing off.
“I know it’s a game of inches, but that one was literally inches away from being a big play for us,” Rivera said.
Inches are what the Carolina backs are getting in the running game. Correcting that will be a focus when players begin preparing for Chicago on Tuesday.
Entering Sunday’s games, the Chicago Bears’ defense ranked 13th against the run, allowing 100.2 yards a game.
The Panthers entered Sunday’s games ranked 20th in the league with 95.5 yards rushing a game. They haven’t finished a season with less than 100 yards a game since 2004, when they averaged 98.6 yards.
They’ve finished in the top 10 in rushing five of the past seven seasons, including second (142.6 ypg.) in 2015 en route to an NFL-best 15-1 record.
“It’s that little difference between making your block and not making your block,” left tackle Matt Kalil said. “It’s as simple as that. For us, just going back to the basics and being more fundamentally sound.
“I have no doubt that we’ll fix that and get that going.”