Panthers pride: The ground game returns

Ten paltry yards.

That’s it. That’s all the Carolina Panthers managed to run for in last week’s 16-10 loss at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Ten yards.

The total was a franchise low and was a shock given that Carolina averaged 153 a game a year ago and Tampa ranked dead last in the NFL in stopping the run in 2011.

Of the many aspects of the Panthers’ defeat that were widely panned by the fans and media this past week, its miserable ground game was at the front of the pelting brigade. So all the Panthers did was make it a priority in Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints.

It helped that Jonathan Stewart and his new mega-bucks contract was back in action. Stewart, who missed the game in Tampa because of a sprained ankle, ran the ball 11 times for 51 hard-earned yards against the Saints. It helped lead to better balance with the run and complemented Cam Newton’s passing game.

“It felt good,” Stewart said. “You practice so hard through the week and all the preparation and you go in last week and you expect to win and you don’t… Then being able to come in here and actually work on all cylinders and really play as a team, it feels really good.”

Stewart’s partner in crime in the backfield for the last few years, DeAngelo Williams, also had a fine afternoon.

Williams ran for 69 yards on 14 carries. His long went for 27 yards. Stewart’s long was good for 16 yards, and Newton, who amassed 71 yards on 13 attempts, most of which were by design, had a 40-yard burst.

Even wide receiver Brandon LaFell, who caught eight passes for 90 yards, had a 25-yard scamper on a Statue of Liberty play.

“The threat of running the ball inside was huge,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “Once we started to run the ball inside, we were able to get DeAngelo Williams off tackle and outside… It was good to have (Stewart) back and it was good to have our offensive line fire off and play physical the way they are capable of.”

In all, Carolina ran 41 times for 219 yards, good for an average of 5.3 per attempt. And unlike a week ago when it seemed like half of the Panthers’ running plays went for negative yardage, only four runs Sunday lost real estate, and two came on their opening possession.

Stewart, Williams, Newton and Mike Tolbert deserve plenty of credit, but so does the offensive line.

“It felt like how it should be for our offense,” veteran tackle Jordan Gross said. “We ran the ball well. Cam was protected (one sack versus three last week) pretty well. It was a lot better day for us. It felt good to get those explosive plays that we’ve grown used to and to run the ball for however many yards we did.”

It set the tone as much as anything for the important victory.