FOXBORO -- The Patriots know the value of having multiple ball carriers on a roster. Almost as much as any team, they switch things up in their backfield.
The team they'll see on Monday night has what might be the deepest and most varied stable of runners in the NFL. Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, fullback Mike Tolbert and quarterback Cam Newton have helped the Panthers combine for 292 attempts (fifth in the league) for 127.8 rushing yards per game (tenth) and 10 touchdowns (fifth).
"I can't think of another team that has more depth at that running back position plus a quarterback who runs," Bill Belichick said on Thursday. "They run the ball a lot, they run it well, they all handle it, they're all effective, but there's always a fresh guy in there and they always run hard."
Williams is, for all intents and purposes, Carolina's lead back. The most dynamic and, this season, healthiest of the bunch has run for 565 yards on 135 attempts for a 4.2 yards-per-carry average. Though he hasn't broken 50 yards rushing in any of the last four weeks, the 5-foot-9, 215-pounder has good hands out out of the backfield and shown an ability to make defenders miss in space. His best days may be behind him -- his last thousand-yard campaign came in 2009 when he ran for 1,117 yards -- but he averaged over five yards per carry (5.4) two seasons ago, and his overall production has been limited in part due to a shared workload.
Stewart has been injury prone at different points in his career, including this season, but he was activated off of the physically unable to perform list two weeks ago and actually saw five more carries than Williams in last week's win over San Francisco, 10-9. At 5-10, 235, Stewart has the ability to be a bit more physical at the point of attack, but he too has displayed good hands over the course of his career and is a threat in the screen game.
"Stewart and Williams both have really good vision and quickness," said Belichick. "They're shifty they're hard guys to tackle. They can run outside or inside."
Tolbert is a thumper. At 5-9, 245 pounds, he's been a good option on third-and-one or at the goal line. Listed as a fullback on Carolina's roster, he also gets some work as a lead blocker to clear space for Williams, Stewart or the team's other -- most well-known -- runner.
Newton has seen his yards-per-carry drop from 5.6 and 5.8 in his first two seasons to 4.3 this season. He's become more of a pocket passer than the player who might have tucked it and ran at the first sight of trouble two years ago, but he's still a major threat with his legs -- especially in the red zone. He has 268 yards and four touchdowns rushing this season.
Though some of Newton's numbers may be down, Belichick and the Patriots know they have to keep him contained on Monday night.
"He’s obviously a threat with the ball in his hands to run," Belichick said earlier this week. "He can make all the throws. He can put the ball on the sideline, he’s got a lot of zip on the ball down the field and he’s a good outside thrower, good deep ball thrower. Whether it’s designed runs or scramble runs or loose-type plays, he’s been effective on all those. They’ve been playing from ahead a lot this year and I think that, again, for a quarterback managing the game, getting the win for the team, doing the right thing in the right situation is a lot more important than individual stats."
Four runners. Four different styles. Four more things for the Patriots defense to think about as it prepares for Carolina.