Panthers run down Falcons early, often and every direction

The Panthers’ brass explained this week that they traded big wideout Kelvin Benjamin to the Bills in order to get faster receivers on the field and open up their running game. 

Their running game went big on Sunday against the Falcons, and those speedy wide receivers were actually part of it.

After averaging just 97.6 rushing yards per contest in their first eight games, the Panthers (6-3) went for a season-high 201 against the Falcons (4-4) as quarterback Cam Newton (nine carries, 86 yards, one touchdown) and rookie running back Christian McCaffrey (15 carries, 66 yards, one touchdown) logged season highs.

That’s the most rushing yardage Atlanta’s allowed this season, nearly twice their 102.1-yard average.

Five of Carolina’s 10 longest plays were runs, including Newton’s 34-yard naked bootleg around left end near the end of the first quarter. Atlanta defenders bit on the quarterback’s fake handoff to the right, and he had all kinds of room the other way.

The Falcons too often were out of position, and their gap control was sketchy.

“When you’re dealing with a team where they do a lot of misdirection, a lot of reads, you’ve got to be disciplined. Everybody’s got to do their job,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett  said. “It was fair. It was fair, but at the same time it still could be better.”

Carolina ran the ball 38 times (to Atlanta’s 18), passing 24 times, and 12 of the Panthers’ 20 first downs came on the ground as they held the ball for 32:52.

After Atlanta failed on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 from the Carolina 35 in the second quarter and 15 yards were added to their field position by a questionable illegal crack-back penalty called on tight end Austin Hooper, the Panthers took over at the 50 and drove to first-and-goal at the 4-yard-line.

Newton was in the shotgun with running back Jonathan Stewart to his left and McCaffrey behind him, Newton faked a handoff to Stewart right, pulled the ball back and made a one-handed option-style pitch left to McCaffrey.

He scored his first NFL rushing touchdown easily, and the Panthers pulled within 10-7 with 1:55 left in the first half.

“They do a lot of stuff with him,” linebacker Deion Jones said of McCaffrey, who remains the Panthers’ leading receiver with 54 receptions. “They did a good job of getting him the ball. We just have to stop it.”

That wasn’t the only atypical pitch or play to McCaffrey, the first-rounder from Stanford.

“It just throws so much at a defense,” Newton said. “You get guys playing fast and making the defense hesitate . . . It’s just basic football, old option football.”

Two plays later, Carolina safety Matt Adams intercepted Ryan’s long pass for Hooper, who slipped and may have turned the wrong way anyway, and returned it 40 yards to the Falcons’ 31.

The Panthers covered that ground in four plays, including a 17-yard run off left tackle by McCaffrey, and scored on a nine-yard scramble by the diving Newton. Sunday was the fourth consecutive game in which he led Carolina in rushing. 

“We’ve prepared against this offense and this style for some time,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “The preparation for the guys was good. There were some times when we didn’t execute exactly how we needed to and those were the times where you get caught.

“It was a different form of preparation for him than anybody else we play.”

Carolina wide receivers Russell Shepard and Curtis Samuel, the speedsters that the Panthers want to play more, contributed to the running game Sunday with reverses for 11 and 14 yards, respectively.

“I think we did well. There’s always room for improvement, but we’ve got to improve every week,” strong safety Keanu Neal said. “I think we were gap sound. Obviously, they got a few on us.”

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