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More than Christian McCaffrey, Ron Rivera loved Panthers' physical play

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was just a simple screen pass.

The result in the second quarter of Saturday's 34-27 loss to Tennessee spoke volumes about what Carolina Panthers rookie running back Christian McCaffrey brings to the offense.

The eighth pick of the draft took the short pass over the middle and turned it into a 38-yard pickup that had quarterback Cam Newton running down the sideline wearing sweats and a big smile.

Newton should be smiling. So should head coach Ron Rivera.

This is what he has been preaching all offseason and preseason about evolving the offense to depend less on Newton -- who is on target with his surgically repaired shoulder to play in Thursday’s preseason game at Jacksonville -- as a runner and more on the playmakers around him.

McCaffrey also had a 17-yard touchdown run around the right side that was just as dynamic and magnified even more what this offense can be.

Those are the two plays that will dominate the television highlights and create conversation around the water cooler Monday morning.

But Rivera was more impressed by the 4-yard run by starting running back Jonathan Stewart to kick off the drive McCaffrey capped with his first NFL touchdown.

"It was a very physical-natured play," Rivera said on his postgame radio show. "The offensive line fired off, got the good surge, Jonathan gets a crease and picked up four good yards.

"That's what I'm looking for. I'm looking for that physical, tough running presence that Jonathan gives."

In other words, Rivera wants the foundation of his offense to be the physical play up front he's sought since arriving in Carolina in 2011. He wants to develop that reputation of a team that can’t be stopped when it’s third-and-1 and the game is on the line. He wants to wear down opponents in the trenches.

"And then I’m looking for that nifty, quick back that you got with Christian," Rivera said. "That's a nice taste of what that tandem could be."

Stewart's run brought stability back to an offense that sputtered through the first three series with two turnovers and eight total yards.

It opened the door for McCaffrey to do his thing and explode through the line as he did on the touchdown run.

"You always hold your breath when he's got the football," Rivera said, "especially when he's got space."

But it all starts with the dirty work Stewart and the offensive line do. Once a team shows it can dominate up front, everything opens up for the rest of the offense.

"Surge, the physicality, those are the things we have to be really good at," Rivera said.

Despite all the sloppiness early, the Panthers were physical up front offensively. Quarterback Derek Anderson didn't get knocked down for the second consecutive game.

He wasn't running for his life, either, so the addition of left tackle Matt Kalil is paying dividends so far.

Newton will need that kind of physicality in front of him if he plays Thursday and, more important, during the regular season, so he can regain his confidence in the pocket after taking a pounding in 2016.

Rivera is hopeful Newton will play in Jacksonville so the 2015 NFL MVP can get his timing down with McCaffrey and the rest of his new toys.

"We're going to increase his throwing," Rivera said. "He had a really good week this week. ... He's on target. We're happy with it."

But the physicality seen from one of Newton's old toys -- Stewart -- is the basis of what Rivera wants his offense to remain.