One-dimensional Newton hurting Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In order to protect quarterback Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers may be hurting themselves.

Newton is on pace to rush 45 times for 195 yards this season. He averaged 121 carries for 677.3 yards rushing the past three seasons when he led all NFL quarterbacks in that category.

He rushed only twice for seven yards in Sunday night's 37-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He said the game plan didn't really call for him to run.

As a result, the Panthers are averaging 72.3 yards rushing per game, or 54.3 yards less than they did a season ago when they were one of the top running teams in the league. Only Oakland, Jacksonville and Chicago, which plays Monday night, are averaging fewer.

The Panthers want to limit Newton's running because he underwent left ankle surgery in March and suffered fractured ribs in August that forced him to miss the opener at Tampa Bay. That means opponents can focus on the backs without worrying about Newton taking off.

So it begs the question?

Can the Panthers be an effective running team without Newton carrying 31.1 percent of the running game as he did the past three seasons?

"We know that he was a big part of what we do," coach Ron Rivera said on Monday. "The thing that this shows us is we can't rely on him all the time. So now we've got to find other answers and ways to do that."

That may be easier said than done. Leading rusher DeAngelo Williams has missed the past two games with a hamstring injury. Jonathan Stewart is questionable for Sunday's game at Baltimore with a severe knee sprain and Mike Tolbert is out with a hairline fracture in his right leg.

If Williams can't return, and with Fozzy Whittaker hampered by a quad injury, that leaves the running game in the hands of Darrin Reaves, who was signed from the practice squad on Saturday.

It may be time for Newton to help.

There's risk. The offensive line has been underwhelming the past two weeks. The Steelers manhandled them with a series of stunts and blitzes, sacking Newton three times and hitting him six more times.

Rivera said he was not pleased with that, "by no stretch of the imagination."

"He took a shot on the sideline that I was a little disappointed in," said Rivera in explaining why he wants Newton running less. "He's gonna take those shots. Again, one of the things we want to do this year is eliminate those or limit them."

In the same breath, Rivera said, "We've got to understand the way he plays."

Newton always has played with his arm and his legs. It made him special. To protect him, the Panthers have made him one-dimensional. They have made the offense one-dimensional.

"Right now he's not quite where we need him," Rivera said. "He will get there. The thing we have to do in the meantime is pick it up. Other people around him have got to play ... play well."

That sounded like a challenge to the offensive line. That the Panthers didn't really run the read option against Pittsburgh, that Newton never attempted to run other than his two scrambles, put more pressure on the line to be flawless.

It was far from that.

"The disappointing thing about this is he was 24 for 35, 250 yards, one touchdown and a quarterback rating of 98.5," said Rivera, reading Newton's passing statistics against Pittsburgh. "If you tell me that's what he's going to average throughout the year, I'd take that every day of the week. You're going to win more football games, I believe."

Newton's quarterback rating is 99.4 in two games, compared to a high of 88.8 last season. The difference has been his running. He simply hasn't done it.

The Panthers apparently are in no rush to turn him loose, either.

Asked whether the running game can be the same without Newton being a threat, Rivera said emphatically, "It's going to have to."