Jonathan Stewart's return a success

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart stood no chance when quarterback Cam Newton handed him the football less than a minute into the second quarter on Sunday.

Atlanta linebackers Akeem Dent and Joplo Bartu hit him 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage and stopped him dead in his tracks. It was as if the entire defense knew Stewart would get the ball on his first carry in more than a year.

"They played a good defense against what we had called," Stewart said with a laugh. "It's OK. We won the game. We built towards the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter. We just got momentum."

On his last carry in the 34-10 victory, Stewart went off left tackle for 16 yards to the Atlanta 7. In between, he had enough quality touches to show just what he can mean to this offense.

Stewart, who missed the first seven games rehabilitating the right ankle that prematurely ended his 2012 season, rushed nine times for a team-high 43 yards. He also caught three passes for 22 yards.

He added another dimension to a backfield of DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert that already had the eighth-best running attack in the NFL.

"I saw him getting more and more confident and comfortable, and then we saw the explosiveness at the end of the game," coach Ron Rivera said.

That's all anybody was looking for, really.

Stewart admittedly was nervous coming into the game.

"I'm pretty sure if you're not nervous your first carry you're not human," he said.

As Stewart addressed the horde of reporters surrounding his locker afterwards, Williams and Tolbert stood on each side of him and had fun cracking jokes.

"He's got to get back in the groove," Williams said with a laugh.

The chemistry these three had going into the game wasn't lost because one had more yards or touches than the other. They showed that together they can be a three-headed monster instead of the "Double Trouble" that Stewart and Williams were a few years ago when both were healthy.

Williams had 42 yards on 13 carries and Tolbert 24 on six carries. As a team, the Panthers rushed for 131 yards -- Newton added 22 yards on five carries -- to match almost exactly what they averaged without Stewart.

They did this even though the offensive line lost starting right guard Chris Scott (sprained knee) and backup Jeff Byers (foot) within a few plays of each other, moving swing tackle Nate Chandler into a somewhat unfamiliar role.

"A lot of people are doubting us and whatnot," Stewart said. "But we know how good we are, and we've just got to go out there every week and prove it. We are relevant, and all we've got to do is just worry about our assignment and worry about holding each other accountable day in and day out."

Stewart didn't stand a chance on his first play on Sunday.

Then again, the Panthers didn't stand a chance at being relevant at 1-3.

Now they both are proving worthy of attention.