Panthers pose serious test for Denver defense
ENGLEWOOD Its the simple things in life. Simple, such as big people running fast running fast along the shortest distance between two points, the old straight line. Thats it, Broncos defensive tackle Kenny Peterson said. Straight ahead. In your face. Thats it, in your face. Ive said its not like people wont know what theyre doing, they just look at you and say, This is what we do, go ahead and stop it.But just because decoding the Carolina offense might not require a super-computer, that doesnt mean the Panthers cant put a defense on its heels and trample all the best-laid plans in front of it.The Panthers currently have the No. 4 rushing offense in the league. They are coming off a game in which they left 299 yards worth of footprints on Tampa Bays defense and one of a handful of times in league history when they have had two backs each rush for at least 100 yards and each score at least two rushing touchdowns in the same game.The Broncos are 26th in run defense and, even with an improved stretch the last month compared with their early season troubles, their defense has still surrendered at least 140 yards rushing seven times this season.Overall, Broncos opponents have rushed for a 4.9-yard average, which is 29th in the league, and the team has surrendered five touchdown runs of at least 20 yards, three of those during the past four games.We know its going to be big, Broncos defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban said. And they have one of the best attacks in the league they have two guys who can hurt a defense.Those two guys are DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, a rare combination of two first-round picks splitting time and touchdowns in the same backfield.Two great running backs, Peterson said. They do what they do, and they do it well. Thats the kind of system weve tried to have every year since Ive been here, Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said. Its a proven system. It just kind of makes everything work hand in hand.Williams, Carolinas first-round pick in 2006, has scored 11 rushing touchdowns during the past six games 13 overall and has 1,141 yards rushing for the season. Stewart, who was one of two Panthers first-round picks in April, has 699 yards rushing and eight rushing touchdowns.Some opposing defensive coordinators say what makes the Panthers duo difficult to deal with is the team consistently makes running lanes in the middle of the field. The Panthers are averaging a little more than 5 yards a carry in the middle of the formation, where Broncos defensive tackles Dewayne Robertson and Peterson will start.And when the two backs hit the hole, they have often made life difficult on the first tacklers they encounter. That was especially the case Monday night, when Williams set the franchises single-season record of 186 yards while Stewart had 115 on just 15 carries against the Buccaneers.Our running backs really made some guys miss, Delhomme said. Those guys made a lot of great runs and they made them late in the game, that was the important thing.Williams, at 5-foot-9, 217 pounds, is the smaller of the two. A darter with the ability to cut in traffic at top speed, he set an NCAA record at Memphis with 34 100-yard rushing games. Williams is also a versatile enough athlete to have predated the current Wildcat-formation craze in the league. He took eight direct snaps on third down for the Panthers they converted seven against Atlanta two seasons ago.For his part, Stewart was the fastest big back in Aprils draft. A 235-pounder, he ran a 4.48 40-yard dash on the electronic clock at the scouting combine.He was the strongest running back to test for strength coaches at the University of Oregon and was also the fourth-fastest back to be tested at the school.Panthers coach John Fox said the team has also started to get healthier on the offensive line. Guard Keydrick Vincent is the only Panthers regular up front who has started every game this season, but the Panthers have had their regular starters in the offensive line for each of the past three games.And the Panthers have rushed for 5.2, 4.7 and 8.1 yards per carry in those three contests. Those two backs are really explosive, Robertson said. They are the type of guys who get the 40-yard runs they turn short runs into big ones. Were going to have to be on our game.
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