NFL

Panthers once vaunted run game has gone missing

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)

A year ago, Carolina's DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart had a catchy nickname, a new website and became the first teammates in NFL history to each rush for over 1,100 yards.

This year, there's little to celebrate. The Panthers are 1-5, both are struggling and now Williams is hurt, too.

Double Trouble has become troubled.

Williams, who missed practice for the second straight day Thursday with a sore foot, has managed 361 yards on 87 carries with one touchdown. Stewart has fared even worse with just 148 yards on 50 carries and one score.

Last season, they each averaged over 5 yards a carry, combining for 2,250 yards and 17 touchdowns for the league's third-best rushing attack.

This year there's been little talk of website subscriptions and Double Trouble T-shirts.

''Instead of building up frustration,'' Stewart said, ''you've got to believe in the guys in front of us, that eventually things will start opening up the way they are supposed to.''

There are plenty of reasons why neither player has looked explosive.

The run game has been bogged down by eight-man fronts, a struggling and banged up offensive line, a new fullback learning on the job and a passing game that has featured horrible quarterback play and failed to earn the respect of opponents.

And now the Panthers face the prospect of not having Williams, a 2009 Pro Bowl selection, for Sunday's game at St. Louis. Williams has not talked to reporters this week.

That would leave Stewart and Mike Goodson in the backfield against the Rams.

''Eventually, if you keep pounding, keep pounding, it will open,'' Stewart insisted. ''Keep knocking on the door and eventually it will open up.''

But even in Carolina's first victory of the season last Sunday against San Francisco, the running game played a minimal role. Williams had 44 yards on 19 carries and lost a fumble before hobbling off in the final minute. Stewart had 29 yards on 14 carries.

It's left the Panthers with the NFL's 23rd-ranked rushing offense, and neither Williams nor Stewart has a 100-yard game.

''This game is a lot easier when the opponent is one dimensional,'' coach John Fox said.

That had been the Panthers' plight in the first five games. Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen combined for nine interceptions and four lost fumbles and no receiver stepped into the No. 2 role behind Steve Smith. It allowed teams to stack the line of scrimmage with eight or nine defenders to stop the run.

''We've seen eight-man boxes before, and we've been able to run against them,'' center Ryan Kalil said.

Not this year. A revamped offensive line has struggled to open holes after right guard Keydrick Vincent wasn't re-signed and with right tackle Jeff Otah being sidelined all season with a knee injury.

The Panthers benched right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau last week, moving Geoff Schwartz there and putting Garry Williams in Schwartz's old spot at right tackle. They'll keep that lineup against the Rams.

Carolina also lost stalwart fullback Brad Hoover, who was released in the offseason youth movement. Second-year pro Tony Fiammetta has taken over, but is still learning to be a lead blocker in the NFL.

There have been key mistakes by the backs, too. Williams' longest run was a 39-yard touchdown on a cutback against New Orleans. He tried the same thing again as the Panthers were driving late against the Saints, but he was brought down for a 4-yard loss, helping to knock Carolina out of field goal range in a 16-14 loss.

And Stewart, who barely practiced the past two years because of an Achilles' tendon problem, hasn't taken advantage of being healthy following offseason surgery.

Stewart, who said he feels well physically, is ''hopeful'' last Sunday's success in the passing game will unclog the line of scrimmage. Moore threw for a career-high 308 yards in his return as a starter and rookie David Gettis caught eight passes for 125 yards and his first two NFL touchdowns.

''Everyone knows we have two great running backs, really three including Mike Goodson,'' Gettis said. ''Everybody is going to focus on the run. It's our jobs as receivers and quarterbacks and linemen blocking to make plays downfield and kind of loosen up the box.

''Give them a chance to make plays, because that is our strength in the offense.''

Notes: LB Thomas Davis, who remains on the physically unable to perform list, is still hoping to return this season following his second major knee surgery in a year. ''I'm still trying to make the Tampa game (Nov. 14),'' Davis said. ''That's my goal.'' ... DE Tyler Brayton returned to practice Thursday, a day after his wife gave birth to a baby girl. ... WR Devin Thomas (groin) was limited in practice.

Tagged: Panthers, Thomas Davis, DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Goodson, Garry Williams

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