If ever there was a running back who was capable of taking on an increased workload, it was the Carolina Panthers’ Jonathan Stewart.
“You’re always thinking, ‘bigger, faster, stronger,’ ” Panthers strength and conditioning coach Joe Kenn said of Stewart, who trucked his 5-foot-10, 235-pound frame to 989 yards and six touchdowns during the regular season. “With Jonathan, he was always bigger, faster, stronger. He may be the strongest guy we have, pound for pound. And maybe the strongest guy we have from pure numbers.”
Stewart, a former star at Timberline High School in Lacey and the University of Oregon, was drafted with the 13th overall pick in 2008, but was mostly a backup to DeAngelo Williams, the Panthers’ first-round pick in 2006.
After Williams signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers after the 2014 season, Stewart had the Panthers’ running back spot to himself for the first time in his career.
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And despite missing the final three games with an ankle injury, Stewart responded with a season that earned him his first Pro Bowl invitation (which he declined after the Panthers advanced to Sunday’s Super Bowl against the Denver Broncos). He’s rushed for 189 yards in Carolina’s two playoff games.
“The only thing that’s changed for us with Jonathan, is he’s gotten more reps and his value has increased because he’s gotten more opportunities,” said Panthers running backs coach Jim Skipper. “We’re running the exact same plays. He’s just gotten more of the load. If you have success, the stats are going to equal out.”
Stewart and Williams formed one of the NFL’s more potent 1-2 rushing attacks, and in 2009 became the first pair in league history to each rush for more than 1,100 yards.
In those seasons during which he shared the load with Williams, Stewart never averaged more than 13.8 carries per game. But this season, Stewart averaged a career-high 18.6 carries.
Stewart is one part of a Panthers rushing attack that includes quarterback Cam Newton (638 yards rushing) and fullback Mike Tolbert (256 yards). As a team, the Panthers have rushed for more than 100 yards for 27 consecutive regular-season games (plus four playoff games), among the longest streaks in NFL history.
“I’m proud of that,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “It’s a big part of who we are.”
Stewart, who invariably runs the ball on the Panthers’ first offensive play, helps set that tone. He opened the Panthers’ divisional-round playoff victory against Seattle by breaking through the middle of the Seahawks defensive line for a 59-yard gain.
“Being physical is very much our identity,” Stewart said. “We pride ourselves in being physical in all areas of our team: Stopping the run (on defense), our offensive line that pushes up front to create lanes for the running backs to do their thing. Even Cam, we have stuff for him.
“It’s a great luxury for us. (Opponents) can’t key on just one thing.”
Although Stewart battled injuries in recent seasons (he missed seven games in 2012 and 10 in 2013), sharing time with Williams for all those years will likely be a benefit in the latter stages of his career.
“As far as the wear and tear on his body, what you saw from him this season kind of proved that out,” Kenn said. “So many times you have a guy who feeds on more carries, and he’s one of those guys. But sharing the ball with DeAngelo for all that time has helped set him up for this.”
Kenn said Stewart’s sturdy, compact build came naturally. He doesn’t have to spend too much time in the weight room.
“He’s a little bit unique because of his physical gifts,” Kenn said. “He does a lot of stuff away from (the weight room), flexibility work, yoga, things like that. So we’ve tailored his stuff down a little bit. He doesn’t need to grow from a muscular standpoint.”
Getting more work
Jonathan Stewart averaged more rushing attempts per game this season than at any other point in his career: