At the most basic statistical level, you wouldn’t have noticed much different about the Panthers in the three games running back Jonathan Stewart missed late in the year. Carolina posted 171, 155 and 111 yards on the ground in Weeks 15–17, respectively, extending their streak of games with at least 100 yards rushing to 27, the longest since the 1975 Lions and a full regular season (16 games) shy of the Steelers’ all-time record.
In reality, the entire outlook for Carolina’s offense changed for the good when Stewart rejoined the lineup last Sunday against the Seahawks. He took all of one play to prove it.
On the first snap from scrimmage, Stewart patiently waited for fullback Mike Tolbert and pulling guard Trai Turner to clear some space, then sprung through the line for 59 yards, marking the Panthers’ most productive run play of the season. Stewart capped off the drive with a four-yard touchdown and added a one-yard scoring plunge later, part of a performance that set the tone for Carolina’s early domination en route to a 31–24 win.
“It’s just great to have Stew back,” Cam Newton said after the game.
Stewart finished the divisional-round victory with 106 yards on 19 carries, totals which likely would have been higher had he not sprained his ankle in the second half. His three-game absence earlier had been caused by a sprained foot, but Carolina coach Ron Rivera confirmed Monday that this was a different ailment, one not expected to keep Stewart out of the lineup for Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
The Cardinals’ run defense will have to be better than it has been of late if they hope to stop Stewart. Arizona finished the regular season ranked sixth against the run, but Seattle in Week 17 (145 yards) and Green Bay last Saturday (135) both found space.
Because of Russell Wilson’s dual-threat presence, the Seahawks’ offense more closely mirrors what Arizona will see this week. It is far from a carbon copy of the Carolina attack, however. Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula have crafted a unique run game that brings a seemingly endless array of options.
Stewart’s huge run against the Seahawks, for example, came out of the I-formation with two tight ends and Tolbert on the field. The play’s counter action, plus the threat of Newton bootlegging to his right, kept three Seahawks defenders almost frozen in place. Turner wiped out Cliff Avril, Tolbert took care of K.J. Wright and Stewart was off to the races.
“Those guys up front do a great job of creating gaps,” Arizona safety Rashad Johnson said this week. “[It’s a] different type of running scheme than what you normally get—read-zone, different counters, a lot of different misdirections, so our eyes gotta be well-positioned this week.”
While Newton is the centerpiece of Carolina’s offense, Stewart is the key to carving out the requisite balance. Tolbert, Cameron Artis-Payne and Fozzy Whittaker all have helped pick up the slack when Stewart’s absent, but none meshes with Newton’s skill set the way that Stewart can.
“That was the whole thing with me coming back,” Stewart said Sunday. “Me being able to come back and be effective, not just come back and grind it out. I wanted to come here and be the running back they expected me to be.”
Arizona has seen first-hand just how good Stewart can be. In a wild-card round win over the Cardinals last season, Stewart rushed for 124 yards and a touchdown, keeping the Panthers on track despite an inconsistent outing from Newton. (The Cardinals being down to Ryan Lindley at QB didn’t help their chances, either.) This time around, Stewart again looks prepared to cause problems.
Like Seattle, the Cardinals feature an abundance of versatile and athletic players on defense. But Arizona’s 3–4 approach also leaves it a little lighter up front than a 4–3, a potential issue compounded by the frequent use of an extra defensive back—Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu (who is injured), Rashad Johnson, Jerraud Powers and Tony Jefferson all played on at least 75% of the defense’s snaps this season. Add in spectacular but undersized linebacker Deone Bucannon (6'1", 208 pounds), and the Cardinals’ defensive playmakers have their work cut out for them against Stewart’s running style.
“They’re a physical team, and they’re going to try to impose their will running it,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to make sure that we stop the run and tackle well.
“[Stewart’s], what, 5'11" and 230 pounds? Short and stocky. If you hit him with two or three guys, you have a shot. For one guy to take him down, that’s asking a lot.”
Stewart’s showing last Sunday stood out further because he returned to action just as Seattle got Marshawn Lynch back from injury. The Panthers never allowed Lynch to find space, limiting him to 20 yards on six carries.
This week, the running back matchup pits Stewart against David Johnson. The Arizona rookie thrived after taking over starting duties from Chris Johnson, but he has hit the wall in his past two outings: 25 yards on 11 carries in a Week 17 loss to Seattle; 35 yards on 15 attempts last weekend.
Both teams will do whatever they can to get their go-to backs rolling this Sunday. The Panthers made that a clear focus against Seattle, and it paid off right out of the gate.
“We talked all week about starting the game with an attitude, going right at them,” Tolbert said. “And it couldn’t have started any better.”
Newton is the superstar, the face of the franchise and straw that stirs Carolina’s swagger. Stewart is the catalyst for the offense, when everything is running smoothly.
If the Cardinals can’t stop Stewart, they may not stand a chance against Cam.