It’s not often in today’s pass-happy NFL that the league’s top-scoring team is also its most committed to the run.
But that’s the reality for the Panthers, who carried an NFL high 526 times during the regular season. Don’t expect them to stray too much from that tendency when they meet the Broncos for Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California, on Sunday.
Workhorse running back Jonathan Stewart leads the backfield. The eight-year veteran set a career high during the regular season with 242 carries despite missing three games. Stewart ranked second in the NFL in rush attempts per game (18.6).
As busy as Stewart is, quarterback Cam Newton still found time to carry 8.3 times per game. Stewart is capable of long runs, but it’s Newton who had the longer run between the two in 2015 — 47 yards to 44.
Although Stewart gets the bulk of the carries in goal-to-go situations, Newton tends to call his own number frequently in such situations as well. That led to Newton scoring more rushing touchdowns in the regular season (10) than Stewart (six).
The running backs — which also include Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert, Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne — tend to be less involved as receivers. Between Stewart and those three, running backs were targeted on just 64 of 495 pass attempts.
Denver places less emphasis on the run, but not because the running backs couldn’t get the job done. The Broncos averaged 4.2 yards per carry during the regular season, not far behind the Panthers’ 4.3 yard average.
While Ronnie Hillman led the team with 207 carries during the regular season, C.J. Anderson has reasserted himself during the postseason by outperforming Hillman. Anderson has 31 carries for 144 yards and a touchdown during two playoff games, far ahead of Hillman’s 27 attempts for 54 yards and no scores. Anderson is more vital to the passing game, too.
Anderson weathered early season health concerns to finish with 4.7 yards per carry during the regular season, besting Hillman’s 4.2 yard mark.
Hillman is a big-play threat, but his lack of effort chasing down a backward pass by Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship led to a Patriots touchdown and made the game closer than it should have been.
The Broncos would be wise to trust Anderson in most situations, limiting Hillman to situations in which Anderson needs a breather.
Beyond the two top backs, Juwan Thompson saw spot action but touched the ball just 24 times, gaining 99 yards from scrimmage. Manning is a statue whose rush attempts are almost exclusively limited to kneel downs to seal victories. If backup quarterback Brock Osweiler is called upon to relieve Manning, he’s more inclined to run.