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After a bad start, Panthers are running late

The frustration boiled over a day after Halloween nightmare in which the Carolina Panthers' once-vaunted running game managed 25 yards against St. Louis and plummeted to 28th in the league.

"Did you see any holes?" running back Jonathan Stewart asked a reporter.

While it's too late to salvage a lousy season, the running lanes look big these days and the gaudy ground numbers have returned.

Stewart rushed for 137 yards in the Panthers' 19-12 win over Arizona on Sunday. Stewart had 133 a week earlier when Carolina (2-12) rolled up 212 yards rushing against Atlanta. Stewart had 92 and 98 yards in the two games before that after a two-game absence with a concussion.

When Stewart was out, little-used Mike Goodson went for 120 and 100 yards in consecutive games. It's helped the Panthers jump to 12th in the league in rushing even with DeAngelo Williams lost to a season-ending foot injury.

It's not quite 2009's third-ranked run game, but it provides a needed confidence boost for the NFL's worst team.

"I'd say continuity," coach John Fox said Tuesday when asked to explain the resurgence. "We started off a little different without (right tackle Jeff) Otah in the mix. We were looking for a starting right guard even during that time. We had those shuffles. We had a couple shuffles at running back."

It's far too late for Carolina to contend for anything except the No. 1 draft pick, but there's a sense of pride that the thing that defined the Panthers the past two seasons has returned. The Panthers have had to lean on running the ball as rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen and the passing offense rank last in the league.

"I feel like our run game has been pretty good the last month and a half or so," left tackle Jordan Gross said.

Most point to Carolina's revamped offensive line as the reason for the early problems and Otah's sore knee that turned into a season-ending injury.

"That was a huge deal. Otah, he's a game-changing type tackle," center Ryan Kalil said. "You watch some of the things he did last year. Sometimes plays aren't there and he figures out a way to demolish two or three guys and make holes for the running backs. He does some unbelievable things. He was extremely missed at the beginning of the season."

But after Stewart and Williams became the first teammates in NFL history to each rush for more than 1,100 yards last season, the Panthers were still expected to tilt the offense heavily toward the run with inexperienced Matt Moore taking over at quarterback.

Instead, the Panthers didn't have a 100-yard rusher until Week 10 when the backs and line — now also without guard Travelle Wharton (toe) — starting to click.

"I think over the last four or five weeks we've had continuity in both those areas and I think that's why the improvement," Fox said.

Despite two fumbles in the past two weeks, Stewart has returned to his 2009 form to take over the team lead in rushing with 668 yards. He averaged 5.1 yards a carry Sunday, including a 35-yard run.

"After a couple runs I don't think they wanted to tackle Stew anymore," Goodson said of the Cardinals. "He's a big guy. He pounded them and pounded them and it opened up."

A tougher test will come Thursday when the Panthers face the league's top rushing defense. Pittsburgh is allowing only 63.4 yards per game.

But the underdog Panthers will at least go into the game minus all the troubles from earlier in the season.

"Focus and finish. You know that's a saying that Coach (Mike) Bellotti used to say to us in Oregon," Stewart said. "There are some ups and downs, but it's all about how you finish."

Notes: Goodson (illness), FB Tony Fiammetta (ankle), DE Tyler Brayton (hip) and CB Captain Munnerlyn (personal) missed practice Tuesday. Fox said Munnerlyn should return Wednesday. ... CB Chris Gamble (ankle) and WR Armanti Edwards (illness) were limited.