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Panthers expecting to lean more on rookie
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Panthers aren’t prepared to call it a changing of the guard at running back.

However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Carolina is shifting its focus in the backfield away from veteran Jonathan Stewart and toward rookie Christian McCaffrey, the team’s first-round draft pick out of Stanford.

The Panthers (6-3) host the Miami Dolphins (4-4) for Monday Night Football.

The 30-year-old Stewart has been largely ineffective for the Panthers this season, averaging a mere 2.9 yards per carry — well below his career mark of 4.3 yards per carry. He has struggled to find holes and fumbled twice last week against the Falcons, putting his team in an early 10-0 hole.

The Panthers battled back to beat Atlanta 27-10 in part because of McCaffrey, who had 15 carries for a career-high 66 yards and his first rushing touchdown. He also caught five passes for 28 yards.

“A lot of it had to do with the blocking up front,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “I thought the offensive line was doing a really good job. They are coming up against a very fast, quick defense. Again, I thought we got our hands on them and we were able to push and Christian was able to make some cuts.”

Stewart had the same holes, but couldn’t seem to find them.

The Panthers have been waiting for McCaffrey to get to the second level of the defense, where he can use his shiftiness to make defenders miss and break big gains. In the previous four games he had been stuffed at the line, held to 28 yards rushing on 18 carries. Like Stewart, he is averaging 2.9 yards per carry.

But what was most interesting about last week’s game is that in the fourth quarter the Panthers were turning to McCaffrey while Stewart was, for the most part, relegated to cheerleader on the sideline.

The fumbles may have affected that decision, but it was clear McCaffrey had found his rhythm.

It’s unclear if McCaffrey will get the starting nod over Stewart on Monday night), but it’s expected that he’ll see an uptick in touches.

Quarterback Cam Newton thinks that’s a good idea.

“He is a dynamic player, and you can kind of feel the vibe around him that he feels as if he’s not doing enough,” Newton said. “But when the ball is in his hands, that’s a good thing for us as an offense.”

The Panthers traded Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo with the hopes of getting more speed on the field. McCaffrey and fellow rookie wide receiver Curtis Samuel are a big part of that plan.

What McCaffrey brings is the ability for a big play out of the backfield. He also forces matchup problems for the defense, which must pay attention to him as a receiver.

McCaffrey leads all rookies with 54 receptions and needs just 35 to break Reggie Bush’s 11-year-old record for catches in a season by a rookie running back. He is tied for fourth overall in the NFL in receptions and has two TD catches.

“I’m always trying to work on my weaknesses, but at the same time capitalize on my strengths,” McCaffrey said. “Being in space is something that can really benefit me. That’s where I feel comfortable and where I feel like I can get in a rhythm.”

Rivera joked earlier this season that having McCaffrey in the lineup was like getting a new toy for Christmas.

“You open up the box and there’s what you’d hoped for,” Rivera said. “But you also have to be wise and smart about when you play with it and when you don’t, because you don’t want to wear the batteries out. You don’t want to break it.”

With the Panthers having a bye next week, it may be time for Rivera to make sure the rookie’s batteries are recharged.

Because it’s becoming pretty clear the Panthers are going to need him heading into the stretch run.