AFTER FINISHING 14th in rushing for four straight seasons, the Panthers went into last April's draft intent on beefing up their ground game. With the 13th pick, Carolina selected running back Jonathan Stewart of Oregon. About an hour later, after trading a second-round pick, a fourth-round selection and next year's first-round choice to the Eagles, the Panthers had secured the 19th pick, which they used on 6'6", 330-pound right tackle Jeff Otah of Pitt.
It was the kind of springtime move that bears fruit during the most important time of the year.
"We had the opportunity to get what we felt were two very fine players in areas that we needed," Carolina coach John Fox said last week. "Sometimes those deals don't work. It's fair to say that we wouldn't have done it just for anybody, but the fact that it was [Otah] was a large part of it."
Much of the country was still learning about Otah and the Panthers when they made their prime-time debut on Dec. 8 against Tampa Bay, gutting the Bucs' defense for 299 yards on the ground. More will be learned this Sunday night when the Panthers (11--3) face the Giants (11--3) in East Rutherford, N.J., in a battle that will decide home field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
Including last Sunday's 30--10 victory over the Broncos, the Panthers have won seven of eight games, and Otah's development has coincided with Carolina's rise. After missing all of October with a high-right-ankle sprain, Otah has blossomed alongside 325-pound right guard Keydrick Vincent, displaying the combination of strength and mobility that can both neutralize a pass rush and bust open running lanes. On DeAngelo Williams's 56-yard touchdown run against Denver, Otah sprinted—yes, sprinted—to his left, clearing out space as Williams started left, cut right and sped down the middle of the field.
The Panthers' dominance of the line of scrimmage may be the biggest difference between this year's team and last season's 7--9 squad. Along with behemoths like Otah and Vincent, a free-agent pickup from the Cardinals, the Panthers create leverage with left tackle Jordan Gross (305 pounds), left guard Travelle Wharton (312 pounds) and center Ryan Kalil (295 pounds).
The size meshes perfectly with Fox's philosophy of a power running game, a style that punishes defenses and keeps backs charging downhill. That was never more evident this season than in Carolina's explosion against Tampa, a beating that prompted Bucs coach Jon Gruden to say of Williams and Stewart, "Unfortunately, they're both on the same team, they're young guys, and they're in our division."
The stout running game has drawn comparisons with Carolina's 2003 squad, which featured Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster but lost 32--29 to the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Now, behind a revamped right side and two gifted runners, the 2008 squad may be poised to go one step further.
"They do everything that makes it easier for us," Otah says of his backs. "Jonathan Stewart is big, strong and fast. DeAngelo Williams is quick, strong and fast."
Otah could have been talking about himself.
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Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.
BOB ROSATO (WILLIAMS)
RUSH JOB With Otah (below) out front, Williams averages a league-high 5.5 yards a carry.
GEORGE GOJKOVICH/GETTY IMAGES (OTAH)
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