Williams-Stewart combo give Panthers optimism

Published 6:55 pm Monday, August 25, 2008

By By MIKE CRANSTON, AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE — Sure, it was only a preseason game, and it came against a listless defense that seemed to check out once its star defensive end limped off the field.
But the dominating performance Saturday night by running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart gave the Carolina Panthers hope their offseason moves to reshape the offense will be a hit.
Stewart (10 carries, 100 yards) and Williams (nine carries, 101 yards) ran through giant holes opened by the mammoth, new-look offensive line. Stewart had a 50-yard touchdown run, only to be upstaged by Williams’ 60-yard TD run on the next possession as the Panthers built a 34-0 halftime lead against the Redskins’ first-team defense.
Williams, Carolina’s first-round pick in 2006, and Stewart, the 13th overall pick this year, both made arguments to start. But after running roughshod over a Redskins’ defense reeling after Jason Taylor left with a second-quarter knee injury, the Panthers were insisting there will be enough work to keep both backs happy.
The Panthers (2-1) have looked dominant running the ball in two of their three preseason games. Williams had two TD runs in the first four minutes in the opener at Indianapolis. After doing little in a driving rainstorm in Philadelphia, Williams darted through giant holes against Washington.
And this time, Stewart contributed in his first action with the first team following his slow recovery from offseason surgery.
Stewart marveled at how he just had to make one cut to the outside on his long touchdown run thanks to the wide lanes opened by the overhauled offensive line. The Panthers in the offseason released two starters, traded away next year’s first-round pick to draft tackle Jeff Otah and moved two others to different positions.
Only new center Ryan Kalil is smaller than 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, and the extra beef has paid off — so far.
It wasn’t a perfect night. Delhomme was sacked early and threw an interception. But after the running game became dominant, Delhomme had plenty of time to throw two touchdown passes.
Lined up next to each other, Williams (5-9, 217 pounds) and Stewart (5-10, 235) look almost identical. Stewart is the more bruising back and better able to break tackles, while Williams would appear to have more big-play ability.
The Panthers are hoping the Stewart-Williams combination can finally give the Panthers a consistent running game missing since Stephen Davis rushed for a team-record 1,444 yards in the 2003 Super Bowl season.
With Thursday’s preseason finale against Pittsburgh likely to include only a series or two for the first-team, Saturday was the final chance to see extended time for the first-team offense before the season opener Sept. 7 at San Diego.
The dominance created plenty of optimism.