A Running Start

The Carolina Panthers finished third in the league in rushing last season and averaged 156.1 yards per game on the ground, but they're averaging just 98.3 yards per game on the ground in their first three games this year.

The Panthers hope to reverse that trend Sunday.

Carolina faces a New Orleans defense that has been anything but stingy against the run and ranks 30th in the league after allowing the Atlanta Falcons to run for 202 yards last Sunday in a 27-24 overtime loss.

"Once we get it going, I think it will be a lot better for us," running back Mike Goodson said of Carolina's running game. "The Falcons having a good game last week definitely is kind of encouraging."

Last year, the Panthers had a ton of success against the Saints, averaging 180 rushing yards in their two meetings -- although the Saints did hold out most of their starters in the Week 17 season finale.

DeAngelo Williams ran for 149 yards and two touchdowns in the Saints' 30-20 win in New Orleans on Nov. 8, long before the Saints had clinched a playoff spot. In the first game Williams broke free on 66-yard touchdown on the second play from scrimmage. Jonathan Stewart had a 67-yard touchdown run in the rematch, also on the second play from scrimmage.

"We've been decent running the ball," coach John Fox said. "Unfortunately, when you're behind in the game ... I think it puts you behind the 8-ball a little bit as far as running as much as you'd like."

"They're two exceptional backs," said Saints coach Sean Payton. "You've always known Carolina to be a physical team that runs the football. Certainly, that's going to be important in this game. It's something that historically they've done a great job with. When a team ends up rushing for over 200 yards, that's significant. And that's something we've talked about wanting to improve on, just as we need to improve on our rushing offense. They kind of go hand-in-hand."

The problem for the Panthers, again, will be trying to loosen up the Saints since they're likely to put eight men in the box and try to stuff the run.

"I think it's harder for the run game to get going when they've got eight guys in the box," said quarterback Jimmy Clausen. "When there's opportunities to throw the ball on the outside, I need to do a good job of getting the receivers and tight ends the ball so they can make plays down the field."

NOTES, QUOTES

--Carolina's offense ranks 31st in the league after three games, ahead of only the Buffalo Bills.

One of the reasons for the offensive struggles is the lackluster play of the offensive line, although coach John Fox refused to point the finger at any one unit.

"Unlike the media, I don't look at individual areas," Fox said. "Just as an (offensive) unit we have not been consistent enough. That would be my assessment at this point rather than individual positions. I think it's fair to say, and I would agree, that we have been inconsistent overall, not just in a particular area."

--Running back Jonathan Stewart's fourth-quarter fumble was a momentum turner last Sunday.

With Carolina trailing 13-7, they seemed to have the momentum and were driving when Stewart had the ball poked out of his hand. The Bengals scored four plays later to put the game out of reach. Stewart said he didn't want to talk to the media after the game, but Fox addressed the fumble on Monday.

"The guy put his helmet right on the ball," Fox said. "We've got to hold on to it, but it was a good play on their part. I don't know that I can say that for the other fumbles we had."

--S Charles Godfrey's three interceptions are the most in the NFL through three games, but he's not even thought much about it.

"Right now that's not important," Godfrey said. "My team isn't winning. I want us to help the team. I want us to do well. I'm in here trying to get better so that we can win."

--The Panthers watched film together as a team on Monday -- the offense and defense in the same room -- to help the self-scouting process. "It's a different situation because you get to see not only the defense, but the offense and it makes you accountable to each other," said linebacker James Anderson.

BY THE NUMBERS: 7-1 -- The Panthers record the past eight seasons when playing the Saints in Louisiana (Six games at the Louisiana Superdome and one at Tigers Stadium in Baton Rouge, La., because of Hurricane Katrina).

QUOTE TO NOTE: "In training camp I was going with different centers. But Ryan Kalil is a real good center, a Pro Bowl center. The first one was a wet ball, and the second one I just pulled out too early. But he's getting the ball back there fine. Those two are on me." -- Panthers QB Jimmy Clausen on dealing with problems handling the snap.

PLAYER NOTES

--DE Greg Hardy missed his second straight day of practice Thursday with a foot injury but returned on a limited basis Friday.

--DE Tyler Brayton (ankle) missed his second straight day of practice Thursday and could be forced to sit out this week vs. New Orleans. He was able to practice in a limited role Friday and is listed as questionable.

--DE Eric Norwood, a rookie out of South Carolina, could see more playing time this week if Greg Hardy and Tyler Brayton can't play.

--RT Jeff Otah (knee) still hasn't practiced this year and won't play this week against the Saints. Otah has missed all three games.

--OG Travelle Wharton (ankle) has been limited in practice this week but will be ready to play.

--LB Jamar Williams (neck) didn't practice and will miss this week's game.



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