Jonathan Stewart has been a member of the Carolina Panthers for seven years but could arguably be playing his best football right now. He ran for 122 yards against the Browns and has run for the most yards (437) of any player in the NFL over the past four games. He is averaging 109.25 yards per game, which is well above his career average of 52.2 yards per game entering this season.
Stewart hasn’t done it all on his own as the improved play of the offensive line has really helped the Panthers’ running back find room to work. However, the run game has been awful for most of the year and without DeAngelo Williams, Stewart has looked like a featured back. He has carried the ball at least 20 times each of the past three weeks.
The run game is going to be extremely important in Week 17 as it will help eat up the clock and keep Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ offense on the sideline.
The second-round rookie saw his role expanded earlier than the organization would have liked at the start of the season. When the defense lost defensive ends Greg Hardy and Frank Alexander, Ealy was looked to step in. Unfortunately, the results weren’t there earlier this year but recently has found a way to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Over the first 12 games of the season, Ealy had only one sack. However the past two games he has registered a sack in each game and even forced a fumble on Tampa Bay’s Josh McCown. Similar to Stewart, Ealy could have a major impact on the outcome of the game Sunday. A steady pass rush on Ryan, who has been sacked 25 times this year, could cause major problems for the Falcons’ offense.
One of the issues with the Panthers offense this year was who is going to catch passes aside from Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen? They struggled to find that number two wide receiver to play on the other side of Benjamin. At times, it looked like Philly Brown could take that role but as of late it has been veteran Jerricho Cotchery.
Entering Week 15, Cotchery was averaging 2.9 receptions and 38.5 yards per game and was still looking for his first touchdown catch of the season. The past two weeks though he has averaged 5 receptions and 46.5 yards per game with a touchdown against the Bucs. If the veteran wide receiver can continue to put up these kind of numbers, it is going to take pressure off the Panthers’ top two targets and make this offense much more dynamic.
The third-year guard has had an injury-riddled season dealing with a knee injury. He started at left guard for the Panthers in seven of their first 10 games and during the bye week he was considered a candidate to replace Nate Chandler at right tackle.
However, since his injury the offensive line has played very well with rookies Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner at the guard positions. When (or if) Silatolu is healthy enough to return this season, he may have trouble finding a starting position on the line.
After the Panthers cut wide receiver Jason Avant, the thought was that Philly Brown was ready to step into that number two role. He has great speed which allows him to run past defenses as well as turn a routine pass into explosive plays.
He had a stretch of three games where he was heavily involved in the offense with back-to-back games with touchdown catches against the Atlanta Falcons and the Minnesota Vikings and a three catch, 42 yard performance against the New Orleans Saints. However the past two games he has a total of three catches for 32 yards. The increased production by Cotchery seems to have dropped Brown on the depth chart for the time being.