The first 2012 preseason game was ugly in some respects for the Carolina Panthers and their second preseason game, against the Miami Dolphins, should tell us how things are progressing after another week of training camp:
Special Teams coverage must improve – The Panthers’ kick and punt coverage picked up where it left off last season – horrible. It stunk the joint out against the Houston Texans, with one return being a 90 yard TD. They gave up way too much yardage on average on the others as well. When you’ve got a young team going through growing pains, it can be quite deflating to lead a long, arduous TD drive…only to see the other team negate that effort completely in ten seconds. Young players are especially susceptible to emotional highs and lows, so stopping big plays of ANY kind is likely very high on the list of priorities for Ron Rivera & company.
The defensive line has to show SOME progress – DT Ron Edwards is back off an injury this year, but even when he was in there, the Panthers couldn’t stop the run in between the 20’s. The good news is that it stiffened at the goal line, but that’s as much due to Kuechly’s veteran-like play than it was the line standing up to the blocks, plus Jon Beason didn’t play. Sione Fua did manage to string together a few good plays, and that’s a start though. It might be that Edwards has some rust to shake off, but he can’t really do it all alone. At least one of the several young tackles the Panthers have needs to step up. The good news is, they’ve got some young bodies. The bad news? Nobody’s stepped up to be consistent. Yet. The other thing is that the Texans have a very good offense and two very good running backs in Arian Foster and Ben Tate, so they’re going to cause most teams some problems. A bit of a trial by fire the first game for the Panthers’ defense; the Dolphins are considerably less evolved there so it _should_ be harder for them to move the ball but they’ve got a pretty good offensive line and a lot of depth at running back.
The pass rush is just not there – We know that veteran DE Charles Johnson is up to the job. He’s proven it year in and year out. However, Frank Alexander, the team’s 4th-rounder that they traded up for, didn’t show anything as far as that goes. I wouldn’t read too much into this yet because it’s the first game ever in the NFL for him, and he did play pretty well against the run, but so far Johnson is the only player Rivera can count on to generate pressure. One guy just isn’t enough.
The secondary needs to step up – Again, it’s early, and we knew coming in the Panthers group of defensive backs lacks talent beyond CB Chris Gamble. Perhaps that’s too strong, since there are a number of youngsters on the squad. A couple of those young players need to start showing some coverage or ball-hawking skills. The Panther team did show some signs that they’ll be causing more turnovers this fall but the Texans moved the ball both in the air and on the ground too easily. The secondary is where I’ll be paying special attention to in their next preseason game. Let’s hope the unit shows some slow but steady improvement through week 4.
The game against the Dolphins should show exactly where the team stands. The Dolphins have probably the least-experienced group of WRs in the entire NFL, so limiting big gains against that team would be a good sign that they’re not blowing assignments or losing people in traffic. Should the Dolphins move the ball in the air at will, either Ryan Tannehill really might be a stud and game-one starter or the Panthers’ secondary is that bad. When Miami QB Matt Moore is in the game, it should be a better barometer.
Amini Silatolu’s pass blocking is a work in progress – He showed his huge motor in last weekend’s Texans game, sometimes finding two different guys to block and the kid is a LOAD. The flip side is his pass-blocking is still well below par if you’ll recall Cam Newton’s sack inside the 5 yard line. Keep watch on the LG spot while he’s in there and see if he’s more solid this game than the last one or if he’s still missing some assignments. I have to think a lot of it is just that he’s from a small school and still steep on the learning curve, but watch for his progress and compare his play in the last game with this one.
With so many substitutions in early preseason games, it can often be hard to keep track of who is in on any given play. Make note of the jersey numbers and you can tell if the player you want to look for is in there or not. And then hope you hear the announcer calling his name for making a good play.