The Carolina Panthers would do well to follow some of the more memorable advice from the movie Forrest Gump as they look to close out the 2012 season with a Week 17 victory over the New Orleans Saints:
"Run, Panthers, run!"
In Carolina's six victories this year their running backs have been able to establish an effective ground attack through the first three quarters of the game.
On the other hand, in the Panthers' nine losses their running backs have struggled to get anything going on the ground heading into the fourth quarter.
Running Wild in Wins
When the Panthers' backfield establishes the run early and often, Carolina tends to have success. Here are the rushing averages for Carolina's three running backs in the first, second, and third quarters of the Panthers' six victories this year:
Carolina Running Backs in Victories - Quarters 1-3
15.7 attempts, 68.3 yards, 4.4 YPC
In the Panthers' six wins this year their running backs have averaged a healthy 4.4 yards per carry through the first three quarters of the game.
Establishing the run early on is particularly important to Carolina because it forces the defense to respect the rush, making quarterback Cam Newton's zone read option and play action passes far more dangerous. When defenses have to account for DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart on every play, Newton becomes very, very difficult to defend.
Grounded in Losses
Not surprisingly, when the Panthers fail to get their running backs going through the first three quarters, Carolina is likely to lose.
In the Panthers' nine losses this year the team has been nothing short of plodding in the running game heading into the fourth quarter:
Carolina Running Backs in Losses - Quarters 1-3
12.9 attempts, 42.9 yards, 3.3 YPC
There is a stark difference in the effectiveness of Carolina's running backs in games the Panthers have won and the games they have lost this year.
Through the first three quarters in their six wins the Panthers' running backs have averaged 4.4 yards per carry. This drops to just 3.3 yards per carry in their nine losses.
In their wins this year Carolina's running backs have put up, on average, 68.3 rushing yards heading into the fourth quarter. This average dips to just 42.9 yards in games the Panthers have lost.
Case in Point: Week 2 vs. the Saints
Perhaps the most impressive example of the impact it has when the Panthers establish the run in the first three quarters took place in Carolina's Week 2 35-27 victory over the Saints.
In Week 2 DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for 18 rushes for 106 yards (5.9 YPC) heading into the fourth quarter.
Behind a strong effort from their running backs Carolina built a 28-13 lead at the end of the third quarter and managed to hang on for an eight-point Week 2 win against the Saints.
The Panthers are on a 4-1 hot streak as they head in to their Week 17 showdown against the Saints to wrap up the season. Getting their running backs going early and often against New Orleans may be the key for Carolina to extend this winning streak heading into the offseason.
Andrew Sweat covers the NFC South. Visit Andrew's archive or check out these articles: