Carolina Panthers' commitment to run snaps losing streak, as Christian McCaffrey nears return

ATLANTA – Quarterback Sam Darnold was in the sideline tent being evaluated for a concussion, and the Carolina Panthers appeared to be having another red zone meltdown with just under seven minutes left in Sunday’s 19-13 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

On first-and-goal from the 1, there was a near interception of a P.J. Walker pass that got the backup quarterback an immediate earful from coach Matt Rhule on the sideline. Then there was a delay of game that made it second down from the 6.

Instead of calling a pass play at that point, which had been offensive coordinator Joe Brady's tendency most of the season, he called a rush, and running back Chuba Hubbard scampered six yards for the touchdown that increased Carolina’s lead to 19-10.

“Joe was locked in on [the run]," Rhule said after Carolina (4-4) ended a four-game losing streak.

Locked in, as in a season-high 47 rushes for 203 yards a week after a season-low 17 rushes for 56 yards. Locked in, as in spreading the ball among three different running backs and Darnold, whose 66 yards on eight carries before he was concussed were second to Hubbard’s 82 yards on 24 carries.

This is what Rhule has been wanting his 32-year-old offensive coordinator to do the past few weeks as the Panthers have gotten further and further from the run.

“I think I've known, ‘Hey, this is what I want us to look like,’ ’’ Rhule said. “I know it's not always going to be [47] runs, but I want it to be in 30s.’’

Running also helped the defense. In addition to getting linebacker Shaq Thompson (foot) back and Pro Bowl corner Stephon Gilmore on the field for the first time since being acquired from the New England Patriots three weeks ago, having more than a 10-minute advantage in time of possession gave defenders rest.

“Even when it was four or five, six plays -- even if it's a field goal, man -- they have a chance to regroup,’’ Rhule said. “And we can play to our strengths.’’

As Rhule has said the past two weeks, this is what the Panthers have to do to win and be viable at the end of the season.

It’s what they have to do this week at Bank of America Stadium against the New England Patriots, (1 p.m. ET, CBS) even if Darnold is out due to the concussion that forced him to miss the rest of the Week 8 win.

Getting star running back Christian McCaffrey back should help. He’s on target to come off injured reserve this week after missing the past five games with a hamstring injury.

After embracing the run game in Week 8, Brady’s next playcalling challenge will be finding more ways to give McCaffrey breaks to ease the wear and tear on a running back who has missed 18 of 24 games since Rhule took over last season.

That won’t be easy, since McCaffrey has typically played about 90% of the snaps when healthy the past two years and accounted for almost 30% of the total rushing and receiving offense.

Easing some of that workload should be easier now that Brady has more confidence in Hubbard, his rookie back who had 24 carries on Sunday, and recently signed Ameer Abdullah, who had eight carries for 31 yards and three catches for 35 yards against the Falcons.

Rhule wasn’t willing to speculate on how the touches will be divided going forward, but he couldn’t say enough good things about his backs, particularly Abdullah.

“Abdullah was just an absolute jolt of energy and was excellent,’’ Rhule said. "So whenever Christian comes back, it's just another premier talent to go along with a bunch of other guys who are figuring it out.”

The Panthers needed a jolt after four straight losses and having mustered only 40 rushes for 174 yards the previous two games combined. The running attack, as Rhule has been preaching, was the only way to protect Darnold, who had been sacked 15 times the past four games.

Darnold wasn’t sacked on Sunday. His injury occurred on a designed run that set up the clinching score.

“He showed the team his toughness, that he was going to do whatever it took for us to win,’’ Rhule said of Darnold.

Brady showed his willingness to do whatever it takes to win by sticking to the run. It won’t earn him points in terms of being the league’s next offensive genius, but it will give the Panthers a chance to win.

“Joe went into this game knowing, ‘Hey, this is how we're going to have to win this game for us to have a chance,’’ Rhule said. “It's probably what we should've done last week and the week before.’’