TEMPE, Ariz. — The Carolina Panthers come to town Sunday afternoon with a rather one-dimensional offensive attack. It just so happens, though, that their one dimension — the run game — has been dominant so far this season.
Through the first four weeks of 2013, the Panthers have the third-highest rushing average (151.0 yards/game) in the NFL, and running back DeAngelo Williams trails only LeSean McCoy and Adrian Peterson in the same individual category (97.0 rushing yards/game).
“He’s explosive,” Arizona Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby said of Williams. “He’s very decisive in the way he wants to go with the ball. He’s a downhill runner. His ability to one cut and go fits in well with that offensive scheme.”
It fits in well, largely because Mike Shula’s unit isn’t solely dependent on Williams’ production. In addition to the former Pro Bowler, the Panthers have a ground-and-pound bruiser in fullback Mike Tolbert (19 rushes for 53 yards and a touchdown), a veteran wide receiver, Steve Smith, who keeps corners and safeties honest (14 catches for 143 yards and a touchdown) and a 6-foot-5 quarterback, Cam Newton, who is as strong as he is fast (16 rushes for 98 yards and a touchdown, including a season-high seven carries for 45 yards in Week 3).
“The biggest thing for them is their quarterback,” Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said. “When you have a quarterback that’s big and strong, it’s like trying to bring down a tight end. When he fakes he makes everyone cautious. You can’t play good run defense cautious. That’s the thing a running quarterback like Cam Newton makes you do.”
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said Thursday that when game planning against Newton and Co. it’s almost a matter of picking your poison.
The only problem with that, however, is that Carolina often disguises its various poisons by running the read option.
Last season, the Panthers ran a league-high 81 plays out of the read option, and according to STATS, they are on pace to shatter that total this season.
So how do you limit a multifaceted ground game?
“Any run game, the way to stop it is great penetration,” Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell said. “Really you have to make them stop and start their feet a bunch. If you get to a running back’s feet and make them change direction, it’s harder for them to continue to make plays.”
What if one of those talented backs also moonlights as a 245-pound quarterback who can beat you with his arm (threw for over 400 yards during his last trip to Glendale) and his legs (23 rushing touchdowns in 35 career games) out of the read option?
“It’s tough,” said Campbell. “Every team that does the read option is tough. You almost have to put eight men in the box, but that’s when they start using that read option pass to eat you up a little bit. The biggest thing is being disciplined, somebody has the back and somebody has the quarterback. As long as you know who has who, you should be fine.”
Although the Cardinals haven’t gone up against a three-pronged rushing attack like they’ll face Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium, their ability to stop the run has been a strong point through the first four weeks of the season.
Arizona is currently second in the league in rushing defense, allowing 75 yards per game, and has yet to allow a 100-yard performance to any one person in 2013.
“We’re just challenging each other,” said Dansby. “We’re challenging each other here in the locker room to be solid and stout against the run, to be accountable, to stand up, do your job and do it well. If we continue to hold each other accountable, we can put performances like [the previous four games] together.”