This Friday, the Panthers will take on the Dolphins in our second preseason match up of the year. After a rather pedestrian affair last Saturday, one can only hope the Panthers put a little more effort against yet another stout defensive unit.
However, unlike the the game against the Texans, we will likely see our starters play for 2 quarters as they get prepared for the rigors of the regular season. And unlike last week where we were mostly focusing on the second and third strings, this week we can take a little more time to go in depth with the starters on both sides of the ball.
We'll do just that... after the jump...
X-Factor: Cam Newton
For the first time, we will get to see what Cam can do for a prolonged period of time in his 2nd season. Don't kid yourself into thinking that last week was par for the course with our starting quarterback. Not only were the Texans one of the best defenses in the league all around last year, but he only attempted 6 passes total this past game. Expect that number to more than double against the Dolphins, especially if our defense gets off the field more (which one would hope with the starters being on the field longer).
The real question is not whether or not can Cam do it. We all know he has the ability to completely wow the opposing team. His cannon for an arm and threat as a runner must really be a nightmare to gameplan against. No, the question here is more likely one of whether he will be allowed to do it. Look back to last preseason if you're unsure of these statements. Newton did not display the kind of ability he showed during the preseason at all. I remember going into the first game last year dreading a repeat of the 2010 offense only to be shocked and amazed once Newton was unchained.
So, will this be the watered down version of the Panthers offense? Or will we cut it loose a little bit and really see what these guys can do? I'm going to guess after the intensity was picked up in practice it'll be the latter.
Battle in the Air: Carolina Passing Game vs. Dolphins Passing Defense
We've already discussed Newton, but almost more important in this game will be with the ongoing #3 WR battle. No less than four players are looking to cement themselves into that position: David Gettis, Louis Murphy, Seyi Ajirotut, and Armanti Edwards. Sorry for fans of Pilares and Adams, but they've already gotten their spots on special teams. And for the guys with the pipe dream of Jared Green and the rest of the UDFAs... well maybe the 6th WR spot, but definitely not the 3rd. So it comes down to these four, with Ajirotutu taking snaps with the first team as the #3 early this week. I expect that is just something in flux as the team appraises each player.
Even better than this battle though is the fact that we will get to see more extended time from LaFell and Smith. They were both non-factors during the Texans game, as Smith caught only one pass for 4 yards while LaFell didn't see any. With these two being the main targets for Cam this year, we should expect to see a little more production form our top two guys in the next two games.
On the opposite side of the ball, a real battle is underway between a former starter for the Dolphins and an ex-Panther. Richard Marshall was signed this offseason to come in and compete for the nickle CB spot as Will Allen was picked up by the New England Patriots. However, in a bit of a surprise, Marshall has begun to out perform CB Vontae Davis, creeping into the #2 CB spot. I always thought Marshall was criminally underrated here in Carolina myself. This battle will likely be on full display come Friday.
However, this will really come down to the man throwing the ball: Cam Newton. If Cam is on, the Panthers will be able to cut their way through the Dolphins defense. If Cam is having an off night, it could be a long one for us.
Ground Warfare: Carolina Run Game vs. Dolphins Run Defense
Another disappointment from the Texans game was the lack of inspired play from our run game. DeAngelo Williams carried the ball only 4 times while Jonathon Stewart didn't even get one. How many times does that happen in a normal Panthers game? (Hint: it doesn't.) I don't believe for even a moment this will stick. Given surprisingly little coverage last year was that the Panthers were in the top 5 for rushing yards per game last year and this is a strength that will not be going anywhere anytime soon, as evidenced by Stewart's resigning just before the game last week. We should also hope to see a little bit more from Tolbert this week, who was extremely quiet.
On caveat about Tolbert that I'm not sure has gotten a lot of noise... He was brought in as a FB here officially, but he never served as a lead blocker at all during his last two years there. We'll see what he can do in that role, but the Panthers were actually better without a lead blocker last year than with one, so it could be a non-factor. (All stats courtesy of Football Outsiders 2012 Almanac)
On the defensive side of the ball, the Dolphins are in the midst of a transition from the 3-4 to the 4-3. They have the personnel to achieve this though, but even still it's a bit of a mystery as to how effective they will be and how often they utilize their 3-4 packages. In any regard, it is undeniable that they have some talent along their line. They have big run stuffers along the interior of their line in Paul Soliai and Randy Starks which makes running up the gut a chore. From the outside, Cameron Wake is back and he was one of the most effective OLBs. I'm not sure where he will line up at in the 4-3 alignment (a great question to Ask the Phinsider guys!), but needless to say I don't expect him to drop off much.
A talented team running the ball with the Panthers led by Double Trouble and Cam Newton against a stout interior. However, I still expect the Panthers to find some room and win the battle in the trenches.
Edge: Slight Edge to Panthers
I'm still not taking the outcome of this game seriously. I think this is definitely a game we can win, but I would not be surprised if we lost either. The Dolphins defense has been stout the last few years, but when the Panthers catch fire there is little that can stop them. In the first half, I really think the Panthers can put it together and come up big, especially if our first team defense delivers like they did against the Texans. There is always the chance that Cam could come out cold though or he could be restricted in what he's asked to do like last preseason. If that's the case, who knows how the game will turn out.