CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera likes to refer to Pro Bowl running back Jonathan Stewart as his team’s “tempo setter.”
The hard-running Stewart piled up 106 yards rushing and two touchdowns against the Seattle Seahawks’ top-ranked run defense in Carolina’s 31-24 divisional playoff win last Sunday, including a 59-yard run on the first play from scrimmage which led to a Panthers touchdown.
That set the tone for Carolina, which jumped out to a 31-point lead.
The Panthers are expected to rely heavily on the eight-year NFL veteran Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC championship game, particularly if wintry weather conditions persist in the Charlotte area. Ice and sleet blanketed the area on Friday, forcing hundreds of flight cancellations at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Temperatures are expected to be in the mid-20s around game time, although no precipitation is in the forecast for Sunday night.
Regardless Arizona coach Bruce Arians is expecting a heavy dose of Stewart.
“Jonathan Stewart’s as good as you get,” Arians said this week.
Behind Stewart, All-Pro fullback Mike Tolbert and mobile quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers have run for 100 yards in 30 straight games, including the postseason and haven’t missed a beat since parting ways with their all-time leader rusher DeAngelo Williams this past offseason.
Stewart is a big reason why.
He was asked to take on a larger workload and responded by rushing for 989 yards and six touchdowns in the first 14 games of the regular season. He was third in the league in rushing at the time before a foot injury sidelined him for the final three regular season games.
Stewart averaged nearly 19 carries per game during the regular season, far more than his typical career average.
“The fact that he’s played as much as he has this year in comparison to the earlier seasons, I think has been great for us,” Rivera said. “He’s one of those guys that sets the tempo because he’s a physical player, and this game is about physicality. So, it’s kind of neat to see him have the success he has had.”
There was some concern over Stewart’s conditioning on Sunday after sitting out four weeks.
But he had 84 yards and two touchdowns at halftime against the Seahawks.
“That was the whole thing with me coming back, me being able to come back and be effective, not just come back and go out there and grind it out,” said Stewart, who deflected credit to his offensive line. “I wanted to come here and be the running back they expected me to be.”
The Cardinals have been decent against the run, holding opponents to 91.3 yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry.
But Arizona defensive tackle Calais Campbell knows that Stewart presents a huge challenge, especially with fresh legs.
“He has had an unbelievable year,” Cardinals defensive tackle Calais Campbell said. “He’s a great running back in this league. The way he’s running the ball, his patience, the way he finds the crease, his speed, his acceleration, he’s playing at an All-Pro level. I don’t know how much credit he gets outside in the media world, but when you watch film, he’s definitely the guy that’s the key to the offense.
“He creates some big things out of just a little bit. He doesn’t need much to get going. So we have our hands full trying to stop him.”
If field conditions cause havoc with the passing game, it could benefit Carolina since they have a stronger run game.
Although the Cardinals finished eighth in the league in rushing, they’ve b been held to a combined 67 yards rushing the last two games.
“We need to run it better when we run it,” Arians said. “We have to really be more efficient. We have too many zero and 1-yard gains in the last two weeks.”
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