Wilks’ Panthers banking on run game to lead them to playoffs
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — When Steve Wilks took over as interim head coach of the Carolina Panthers in Week 6, he believed the only chance to be competitive was complete dedication to running the football given the strength of the offensive line and the instability at quarterback.
Well, Wilks’ theory has proven correct — and the Panthers are now reaping the rewards.
Carolina ran for a franchise-record 320 yards in Saturday’s 37-23 win over the Detroit Lions on a bitter cold afternoon at Bank of America Stadium where the wind chill dropped to 9 degrees at kickoff, making it the coldest home game ever. D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard both had career days running the ball. Bolstered by a dominant performance up front, the Panthers averaged 7.4 yards per carry and racked up 30 first downs and scored three times on the ground.
This wasn’t a fluke.
In the past six games, the Panthers have put up huge numbers on the ground against the Atlanta Falcons (232 yards), Seattle Seahawks (223) and Denver Broncos (185).
Wilks believes this is the time of the year running the football has huge advantages, as defenses tend to wear down.
“It just creates that momentum throughout and everybody gets excited,” Wilks said of having success by repeatedly running the football. “You see the defensive guys standing up, encouraging the offense, and it just really just fuses this team to go to another level. Again, this time of the year, establishing the run. Someone mentioned the weather, in the cold, that’s rough, tough, gritty, everything that we are about.”
Wilks praised the team’s offensive line, which bounced back from a rough outing the week before when the Panthers were held to 21 yards on 16 carries in a 24-16 home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“We got embarrassed,” Wilks said. “That took a lot of pride to come back and do the things that we did this week and to come out with a great performance as we did today.”
QB Sam Darnold. There were plenty of doubts about Darnold’s ability to lead the Panthers after he struggled last year by losing seven of his final eight starts. But Darnold is 3-1 as a starter this year.
He has completed 61.4% of his passes for 759 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Darnold also ran for a touchdown against the Lions.
“The biggest thing that we are seeing guys, across the board, we are not turning the ball over,” Wilks said. “That’s the key with us. We always have a chance if we protect the football.”
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Panthers weren’t exactly perfect in the 14-point win against the Lions as they allowed Jared Goff to threw for 355 yards and three touchdowns, all of them going to third string tight end Shane Zylstra.
Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson had a tough time keeping up with Zylstra in coverage and other teams may look to take advantage of a similar matchup with their tight ends in the coming weeks.
Brian Burns. The Panthers Pro Bowl defensive end turned in another strong game with two sacks against the Lions, adding to his career-high to 12 1/2 for the season. He needs three more to set break the franchise’s single-season record of 15 sacks shared by Kevin Greene and Greg Hardy.
Also, kicker Eddy Pineiro has made 17 straight field goals.
Bank of America Stadium playing surface. Several Carolina players complained about the team’s artificial surface — which was installed in 2021 when owner David Tepper bought a soccer team — saying it’s not as safe as a grass field following a spate of injuries.
Lions quarterback Jared Goff only added to those concerns when he ripped the playing surface before Saturday’s game on a day when temperatures dipped to 22 degrees at kickoff — the coldest game in franchise history.
“I thought the field conditions were below NFL level standard, specifically pregame,” Goff said. “It warmed up as the game wore on. I don’t what the deal is here. But they need to figure out a way to make the field not feel like cement. Why that is, I don’t know.”
Panthers top cornerback Jaycee Horn broke his wrist against the Lions and will have surgery on Tuesday, leaving his status for Sunday’s game in serious doubt. That could be a huge blow as the Panthers have already lost one starting cornerback Donte Jackson for the season and Keith Taylor struggled in his last outing against the Steelers when he had to fill in for an injured C.J. Henderson. If Horn is out, Taylor will start. Wilks also said Monday the team is working out Josh Norman with the hopes of signing him to be a reserve. Norman forced seven turnovers in 15 games last season for the San Francisco 49ers, but has not played in the NFL this year.
3 1/2 — The number of points the Buccaneers are favored by over the Panthers on Sunday per FanDuel Sports Book. That’s an interesting spread considering Carolina beat Tampa Bay 21-3 earlier this season and the Panthers are coming off a dominating win over the Lions, while the Bucs barely scraped by to beat the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday night.
The Panthers have a vitally important game Sunday at Tampa Bay. They will win the NFC South by beating the Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints, teams they have already defeated this season. But if the Panthers lose to Tampa Bay, their division title hopes are done.
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