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What is ailing the Carolina Panthers ground game

One of the league’s great rushing attacks has become a shadow of itself.

Carolina Panthers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

It was not all that long ago that the Carolina Panthers had DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and even Mike Tolbert at running back. They could—and did—run all over other teams, and that helped to make them one of the NFL’s most fearsome rushing attacks for years.

In 2017, however, the Panthers have an unbelievably anemic attack on the ground. Cam Newton has more rushing touchdowns (3) than the rest of the team’s backs combined, is averaging a higher yards per carry (4.3) than any other back (nobody else is above 3), and is second on the team in rushing attempts and yards. It’s actually pretty ridiculous how ineffective this group is, considering Stewart has always been a quality back and Christian McCaffrey is a dynamic athlete and top ten pick.

So what’s behind that, and will it change versus Atlanta?

The latter question is difficult to answer, if only because we don’t know if the defensive improvement we saw agains the Jets was due to the addition of Ahtyba Rubin and genuinely improved play, or if the Jets were a lesser challenge. But I do know that nothing the Panthers have done this year suggests they’ll be able to run well, aside from with Cam Newton.

The primary drivers, I believe, behind Carolina’s anemic rushing attack are a lack of creativity, poor blocking up front, and both the decline of Stewart and McCaffrey’s unreadiness. You know, just the basics.

Mike Shula has done a terrible job of masking his intentions with McCaffrey, and he’s simply not a great back if he’s carrying the load or running against fronts that are expecting him. Stewart is 30 and running behind an offensive line that is a real mixed bag with Matt Kalil at left tackle, and the team has simply not done a great job of masking when Stewart or McCaffrey are going to run, and where. Unless the team suddenly finds their way to more creativity—or the passing attack really takes off—it looks like the ground game may be a bit of a liability the rest of the year.

If things continue apace, it’ll be a boon for the Falcons on Sunday, one that may help them in their quest to overcome one of the NFL’s toughest defenses.