Since 2008, few teams in the NFL have made better use of a pair of running backs than the Carolina Panthers have with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
In fact, last year Williams and Stewart became the first duo in league history to each rush for over 1,100 yards in the same season, and even the most stat-obsessed NFL fan might struggle to name which one was the Panthers' leading rusher. (For the record, it was Stewart by a nose, with 1,133 yards to Williams' 1,117.)
The question this week, however, isn't how the carries will be split between those two outstanding backs but whether either of them will play at all.
Carolina's injury report for Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium isn't too lengthy, but it does hit one position particularly hard. Both Williams and Stewart missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday, as did one of their key reserves, Tyrell Sutton. Williams is trying to return from a foot injury that has kept him out for the past two weeks and his running mate is now a question mark due to a concussion suffered against New Orleans on Sunday. Sutton stepped in against the Saints and produced 56 combined rushing and receiving yards before sustaining an ankle injury on the first play of the second half.
If all three injured Panther backs are unable to play on Sunday, the primary job would fall to second-year man Mike Goodson, who has 50 yards on 16 carries this season. Thanks to a pair of recent moves, Carolina's stable of backs also now includes first-year player Josh Vaughan (who originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Bucs last year) and second-year man Andre Brown, though the two have a combined two carries for -1 yards in the NFL so far. Vaughan was signed off the Buffalo Bills' practice squad; Brown was claimed off waivers from Indianapolis.
That would seem to change the face of the Panthers' rushing attack dramatically, but the Buccaneers have learned in the past that even Carolina reserves can be very dangerous in the ground game.
"The Carolina Panthers came in here with Nick Goings and ran for 160 yards on us one time," said Head Coach Raheem Morris, referring to a contest late in the 2004 season. "They came in here with Brad Hoover one time and rushed for…I don't know how many yards he had but I know he ran the ball pretty good on us and he was the fullback. That's just the mentality of their team. I don't think you can go in there and shut down their run, really. It's tough to do. You can go in there and contain it, but I don't know if you're going to shut it down. You've got to tackle and get ready to play big ball against this team. Somebody's got to stand up and play against that run. It's going to be tough to deal with."
Goodson actually had one of his busiest days this season against the Buccaneers in Week Two, running five times for 20 yards and catching two passes for 33 more. He shares a hometown with Morris and injured Bucs back Kareem Huggins, so Morris has been impressed with the Irvington, New Jersey native for years.
"It doesn't matter who they hand it to," said the Bucs coach. "They've got this young named Mike Goodson who I know very well from Jersey. Played with Kareem Huggins in the same backfield. He moved out to Texas, I guess, went to Texas A&M and here he is, later in the life. My dad coached him and he's a very good player. You've got other guys involved and all the guys they can get in there. You can't ever sleep on this running game. It's kind of their makeup, their fundamental core beliefs."
You can't blame the Buccaneers for being cautious about Carolina's rushing attack, regardless of who is taking the most handoffs. Since the start of the 2007 season, the Panthers have won four of the seven meetings between the two teams. In Carolina's four wins, it has averaged 226 rushing yards per game and 5.8 yards per carry. In the Bucs' three wins, the Panthers have run for just 86 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry.
In addition, shutting down the running game early would put more pressure on rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen, starting in place of Matt Moore, who was placed on injured reserve this week. Clausen has started three games this year, and he also saw second-half action against the Buccaneers in Week Two. Clausen threw 13 passes into the teeth of Tampa Bay's defense, completing seven for 58 yards but also tossing one interception. So far, Clausen has completed just 46.8% of his passes (51 of 109) for 501 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions for a passer rating of 48.0, but of course such struggles are not unexpected for a rookie. Clausen may soon develop into the Panthers' long-term answer under center, but the Buccaneers hope to continue his struggles for at least one more week.
The only team with an average player age younger than the Panthers, the Buccaneers know quite a bit about playing rookies this season, too. Sixteen different rookies have suited up for the Bucs for at least one game this season, and 12 of the 44 players who saw action last weekend in Atlanta were in their first NFL seasons. Overall, rookies have played a total of 86 games and made 29 starts for the Buccaneers this year, and another group of nine players who entered the league just last year have accounted for another 51 games played and 29 starts.
One more rookie could step into a prominent role for the Buccaneers this week, and potentially help the team slow down Carolina's rushing attack, if starting strongside linebacker Quincy Black (ankle) is unable to play. Black was limited in practice on Wednesday after sustaining his injury against the Falcons on Sunday, and then was held out completely on Thursday.
Any absence or limitation for Black would likely mean more playing time for rookie Dekoda Watson, who made an interesting cameo in the second half of the Atlanta game.
Prior to that outing, Watson had played only on special teams – and done that quite well, with nine kick-coverage stops – but the coaching staff had become increasingly intrigued by his potential on defense. The team actually designed a package for the Atlanta game that used both Watson and Black on the field at the same time, and were a few plays into trying it out when Black twisted his ankle. After that, Watson moved to Black's strongside linebacker spot for the plays the usual starter was unavailable.
"He did a nice job once he got in there, made a couple tackles, rushed the passer a little bit," said Morris. "We had the ability to get him out of there and let him use some of his best qualities, which was chase the quarterback around and use his speed. That's sort of what he's done on special teams, which is really good and valuable."
The Bucs could also make use of special teams ace Adam Hayward if Black is limited. Hayward, tied for the team lead with 11 special teams stops, is currently listed as the backup to weakside linebacker Geno Hayes, but he has played all three linebacker spots during his four years in Tampa.
If Black is unavailable and Watson gets the call as his primary replacement, he could be the sixth different rookie to start a game for the Buccaneers this year, joining wide receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, guard Ted Larsen, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and safety Cody Grimm. Of course, the Bucs are still hoping that Black can test out his ankle on Friday.
"It's too early to count Quincy Black out," said Morris. "He'll hopefully try to go tomorrow and we'll see where he is then, see where that ankle is and what he can do on it. I'm very pleased with those two guys today in practice, letting Hayward and Dekoda Watson go out there and compete at that spot. It's been fun to watch. Those two guys are highly competitive."
Three other Buccaneers did not participate in practice on Thursday: fullback Earnest Graham (hamstring), defensive end Kyle Moore (shoulder) and defensive tackle Ryan Sims (knee). Graham and Sims also missed last Sunday's game in Atlanta and Moore has been bothered off and on by his shoulder ailment.
In addition, the Buccaneers continue to monitor the progress of two starting offensive linemen who have been out for several weeks. Center Jeff Faine, who hasn't played since suffering a quad injury at Cincinnati in Week Five, practiced without limitations on Thursday, his first full-speed workout since the injury, and said he would have a better feel for his readiness on Friday.
"The true test is going to be tomorrow because we got more physical today," said Faine. "I stressed it a lot more than I did yesterday."
Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood was limited on the practice field on Thursday and could miss his third straight game with a knee injury. Morris isn't yet sure whether either of the two veteran blockers will return to the starting lineup this week against the Panthers.
"We've got to get them through a practice week first," he said. "You'd like to see both of those guys get through a practice week. Trueblood's been out two weeks, Faine's been out a couple. We're going to get those guys caught up to speed and see where they are."
Because he has been out for a little more than a month, Faine also may need to regain some of his conditioning, Morris indicated. That issue could also play into whether the veteran standout starts at center this weekend or whether the team stays with the tandem of Jeremy Zuttah at center and rookie Ted Larsen at left guard that has worked well the last three weeks. When Faine is ready to play full-time, the Buccaneers believe they will have a sudden glut of depth on the interior line, a problem they're happy to have.
"It's a battle, you have to say, because Larsen's played so well, if Faine comes back in," said Morris. "And Zuttah's played really well at center. It's going to be a battle for Faine. After awhile there, those two guys have been competing and doing a pretty good job. Faine's one of our leaders, one of our captains, but he's got to go out there and play better than them right now. He's got to get out there when he can. Zuttah can easily move to left guard; we saw him do it all last year. He'll have no choice but to go out there and be better than he was last year just based on experience and what he's been able to do the last few weeks. We've missed some pretty good players the last couple weeks and we've kind of moved on and been ready to play without really blinking."
It's possible both teams will enter Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium without the services of several key players. We'll find out soon which one blinks.