Tue, 07 Feb 2023

Running backs feeling "unleashed"

Carolina Panthers
01 Dec 2022, 20:44 GMT+10

Augusta Stone

CHARLOTTE - Steve Wilks laid the plans for a rush-heavy offense in his first press conference after he took over in Week 6.

Since then, Wilks has watched D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard - running behind a strengthened offensive line - help lead Carolina to three home wins and a new identity.

Wilks' run-focused mentality was born from his defensive background, when he'd grow frustrated against teams who were able to run the ball well. He knows what it does to a defense when an opponent gashes up front - and that's what he has wanted to establish at Carolina.

"My mindset, from a defensive perspective, is (there's) nothing more demoralizing than the offense just running the ball," Wilks said. "You're not going to stop quarterbacks from getting the yardage, (Tom) Brady or whomever. They're going to pass the ball in this league. When they can run and pass, it's a long day."

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And yes, that philosophy is popular in the running backs room.

"That's the offense I want to be in (and) want to be a part of," Hubbard said. "That's what we're trying to make a part of our identity. It's a part of our identity now, and it's fun, really."

The Panthers rushed for 185 yards in their first win outside of the NFC South, opting for 46 run plays against Denver.

Carolina has totaled 859 yards rushing since a Week 7 win over Tampa Bay, the first week after the Christian McCaffrey trade and first home win in Wilks' win streak at Bank of America Stadium.

Hubbard said he could feel when defenses catch that "demoralizing" feeling Wilks describes on the field, especially when a matchup nears its final minutes.

"That last drive of the game, it just shows you," Hubbard said. "The O-line's just mauling guys; (defensive backs) and linebackers aren't really wanting to tackle anymore. It's late in the game, and just helmets on helmets, just driving guys. You always want to end the game with victory, and when you can do that, it just shows what kind of game it was."

Hubbard and Foreman have brought a one-two punch with different styles that have helped the Panthers run effectively at times this season.

The year hasn't been perfect for either of them, though. Hubbard was sidelined for Weeks 8 and 9 with an ankle injury and hadn't seen a dominant outing until the Broncos game. Foreman had to bounce back from a bad game at Baltimore, where he put up just 24 yards on 11 carries in a loss.

The ground game took off against the Broncos; Foreman posted his fourth 100-yard rushing game in six weeks, and Hubbard put up his second game with at least 60 yards this year.

Foreman ran for 113 yards on 24 carries against Denver, bringing his total yardage since Week 6 to 545, second in the league among running backs in that time frame.

"I just had to bounce back from last week," Foreman said. "It was so horrible and terrible. I was so ready to play again."

As a downhill runner, Foreman can power through hits and keep running. Wilks said Foreman had his foot stepped on and was hit in the ribs against the Broncos but played through the bumps.

"(He's) very strong, resilient," Wilks said. "He takes a lot of pounding, a lot of beating; he can get back in there. That's part of his makeup and how he runs. ... He demonstrates the DNA that we talk about all the time - the physicality and effort."

Hubbard sees how his more speed-focused style pairs well with Foreman's hard-nosed abilities, and Wilks also likes how the two team up.

"You can see he's smash-mouth, run hard, run through people," Hubbard said. "I like doing that too, but I'm (a) speed, I-want-to-make-you-miss type thing. We both have different styles but complement each other well."

When asked what kept Carolina's run-first mentality strong after losing in Baltimore, Wilks repeated a dedication to his coaching philosophy.

If coming back from 36 rush yards against the Ravens to 185 against Denver is any indication, Wilks' mindset could keep moving the Panthers forward.

"As a coach, when you believe in your philosophy, you've got to hold true to it," Wilks said. "My philosophy from a defensive-minded perspective is you've got to have a good run game; you've got to play great defense; you've got to have a solid kicking game. That's the formula right there for winning football games, in my opinion."

And from Hubbard's point of view, he sees more to come from the offense after the Week 13 bye.

"I think we're still just getting unleashed," Hubbard said. "We know our capability in the run game, and I think we've just got to unleash the pass game even more now. And I know we've done a great job there, but I just know that our offense isn't at its full capability yet. I know we can do a lot more on top of what we've already done."

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