FOXBOROUGH — The numbers don’t spell it out — they’re only 10th in the league — but the Carolina Panthers might have the best running game the Patriots will face this season.
That could be a problem come Monday night in Charlotte, N.C., because the Patriots are giving up 128.2 yards per game on the ground. Only the Bears and Jaguars allow more.
The challenge Carolina brings is not allowing defenses to key on one player, or two, or even three. With quarterback Cam Newton and running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Mike Tolbert, the Panthers have four players who have combined for 1,128 yards and average 4 yards per carry. They’ve rushed for 10 touchdowns.
Not only do defenses have to prepare for multiple players. Those players have different running styles.
“They can hit the edge, they can run inside, they have a quarterback that can run and scramble, he’s that dual-threat guy that when he’s back throwing the ball, he can just pull it down and run for a first down, so that’s always tough,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said.
Williams is the Panthers’ leading rusher with 565 yards. Newton (266) is next, followed by Tolbert (213) and Stewart (84), who missed the first eight games with an ankle injury. In 2009, Stewart and Williams became the first duo from the same team to each rush for at least 1,100 yards, a big reason why the Panthers lead the NFL in rushing yards from the start of the 2008 season.
“All those guys are good. Stewart and Williams both have real good vision and quickness. They’re shifty, they’re hard guys to tackle. They can run inside, they can run outside,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “Tolbert is a downhill guy. He’s in there in a lot of short-yardage and goal-line situations. He gets some tough yards for them. Of course, Newton carries the ball. Between the three backs and the quarterback, a wealth of ball carriers, probably more than — I can’t think of another team that has that much depth at that running position plus a quarterback who runs.
“They run the ball a lot. They run it well. They all handle it, they’re all effective. There’s always a fresh guy in there, and they always run hard.”
Knowing their limits
In addition to Ninkovich, who left the previous game with a foot injury, the bye week benefited the Patriots from a health standpoint, with only six players limited in Thursday’s practice. Ninkovich wasn’t one of them; he wasn’t on the injury report at all.
Safety Steve Gregory, who broke his thumb against the Steelers Nov. 3, was the only player to miss practice. The limited six were cornerbacks Kyle Arrington (groin), Alfonzo Dennard (knee), and Aqib Talib (hip), running back Brandon Bolden (knee), tight end Rob Gronkowski (back/forearm/hamstring), and running back Leon Washington (ankle).
The injury report prior to the Pittsburgh game had 10 Patriots limited. Since then, offensive lineman Marcus Cannon (shoulder), receiver Julian Edelman (thigh), tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (knee), and safety Tavon Wilson (hamstring) were removed from the list.
He played a role
Panthers special teams coach Richard Rodgers was an assistant coach at Holy Cross from 2005-11, so football fans in Massachusetts might know who he is. If you’re a fan of college football, and know its history, you’ll likely remember a famous play that featured Rodgers. Actually, it was “The Play.”
Rodgers was part of the Cal special teams unit in 1982 that improbably returned a kickoff for a touchdown — with the help of five laterals — to beat Stanford on the game’s final play. Rodgers called the play in the huddle, and was the second — and fourth — player to handle the ball during the return.
“I’ve been able to call on ‘The Play’ as a tool of learning for players that I coach. Never give up, never quit, you never know when you’re going to make history,” Rodgers said. “I certainly didn’t know that Saturday morning ‘The Play’ was going to happen. That’s why you keep playing.”
One of his Cal teammates that year was Ron Rivera, now the head coach of the Panthers.
“I am really excited about what he does,” Rivera said. “Because of his defensive background and his background in college dealing with the zone read and playing some of the college style offenses that we’re starting to see, he became a nice resource for our defensive coaches.”
Rodgers’s counterpart for the Patriots, special teams coach Scott O’Brien, spent six seasons with the Panthers. From 1999-2004, O’Brien was Carolina’s assistant head coach and special teams coach.
Ed Reed claims interest
Veteran safety Ed Reed signed with the Jets on Thursday, but said the Patriots also showed interest. The move reunites Reed with Jets coach Rex Ryan, who was his defensive coordinator in Baltimore for four seasons. Speaking to reporters on Thursday after his first practice with the Jets, Reed said the Patriots were an option, “but going in there, trying to learn a new situation probably would have been difficult.” . . . Gronkowski’s availability with local media, which had been scheduled for Thursday, has been rescheduled for Friday. Gronkowski did, however, speak with Carolina media Thursday on a teleconference . . . The Panthers’ average time of possession is 33:48, which leads the league.Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.