After seeing so many ugly, sweaty NFL players, I’m more than happy to use Lauren Tannehill as the “featured image” for this article. Look at her – can you blame me?
Yes, we here in the Carolinas woke up to Jack Frost nipping at more than just our noses this morning, but the Carolina Panthers have the luxury of playing in warm, sunny Miami, Florida today.
I’m sure this is one game they are actually happy to be on the road for, and in the particular location they are. Temperatures last night dipped into freezing in many areas, and even below, in the greater Charlotte area. Sunday night will be even worse.
It is not in the 20’s or 30’s there. As I write this, it’s 76 degrees and I’m kinda ticked off over it all but hey that’s how it goes.
As it turns out, the warm weather that usually is a nice home field advantage for the Dolphins – especially in games earlier in the season where the humidity along with the heat often wears down opponents – won’t be a factor against the Panthers. Carolina plays outdoors as well and is used to feeling punishing heat during September and even some in October, so the home-field “heat” advantage isn’t one for Miami.
We all know by now of the issues surrounding the Dolphins due to racially-charged voicemails and texts sent from Miami guard Richie Incognito to second-year tackle from Stanford, Jonathan Martin.
What this does to them off the field is at best a distraction and at worst a total shaking of the core of the foundation for also second-year Head Coach Joe Philbin, General Manager Jeff Ireland, and the entire organization. They proved that much in their loss to the previously winless Tampa Bay Bucs and have played poorly every since the scandal hit, winning no games the past two weeks.
The Panthers, on the other hand, are one of the (if not THE) hottest teams in the NFL. They’re riding a six-game winning streak, sit at 7-3, and are rather comfortably slated as the 5th seed in the NFC playoffs and top Wild Card contender. Their win at San Francisco two weeks ago helped solidify that, as the victory handed them the tiebreaker over those same Niners, who sit as the 6th overall seed.
With the NFL’s best front-seven going up against an already poor Dolphins offensive line that got further depleted without the services of Incognito and Martin, they’ll have to rely on RT Tyson Clabo and LT Bryant McKinnie to dam up the coming storm surge, to use south Florida parlance.
I don’t think they have enough dorsal fins to stop Carolina’s disruptive defensive line at all. Center Mike Pouncey is the only really good o-lineman they have, although guard John Jerry has shown a propensity for up and down play. When he’s “up,” he’s a pro-bowl caliber guard. When he’s down, he’s a bowling-alley quality guard.
On the field, Richie Incognito, despite his label as the “NFL’s’ dirtiest player,” is a quality player. The ‘Fins have to go without him again and with QB Ryan Tannehill taking the most sacks of any NFL QB, it doesn’t bode well for their offense. The Dolphins have had surprising difficulty running the ball as well this year, despite the hype around Lamar Miller, and have to face the NFL’s stingiest defense that allows a mere 13.5 points/game.
Miami’s defense is actually pretty good against the pass, and they have a rather imposing front-seven themselves. Rookie DE Dion Jordan so far has not lived up to his draft position but word is that he’s starting to hit his stride after an extended recovery after shoulder surgery between his college and NFL careers.
Jordan is a unique player with a long, slender frame to rush the passer and the speed to cover any TE – and even some WRs. I don’t think the Dolphins drafted him to be the league’s largest cornerback, however, and with his physical talents, he could be a nightmare that Cam Newton can’t escape from. Jordan’s every bit as big as Cam is, but he’s even faster.
When Jordan’s on the field, keep an eye out for him especially on pass plays. If he rushes Newton and Newton takes off, that’ll be the most interesting pair to watch…can Jordan chase down Cam from behind? Yes, he can!
Jordan’s not much of a run defender, however, and won’t hold up at the point of attack. He was drafted to be the “next Jason Taylor,” still has a lot of learning and developing to do, but physically is very similar to Taylor in his younger days. Taylor’s slightly bigger; Jordan faster and with longer arms (at least it seems).
The Dolphins have 30 sacks on defense and the Panthers have 31, so they can get after the quarterback a bit themselves. While both QBs are likely to be pressured at times, the Dolphins are one of few teams that have more issues on their offensive line than do the Panthers. Carolina has been through a number of guards and in fact has lost both their Opening Day starters to injury.
LT Jordan Gross’ best days seem to be behind him, but he’s still slightly better than average at the LT position. RT Byron Bell is a fine run-blocker but could pick up the nickname “Turnstile” as a pass-blocker. The only thing he doesn’t do is collect the token from the defender he’s letting by on passing downs.
I think the Panthers have two distinct advantages in this game. Carolina has a strong power-running game and the Dolphins have next to none. Carolina is ranked 10th in rushing offense while Miami is 24th. I think the Dolphins are going to have to be equally concerned about Carolina’s running game and Cam Newton’s emergence as one of the most efficient QBs in the league, and one of the most “clutch” QBs in the league as well – at least during their 6-game winning streak.
Cam’s numbers on third down and in the fourth quarter are as good as anyone’s this season.
As the Dolphins’ defense looks to stop the run first while hoping the on-paper matchup between CB Brent Grimes and WR Steve Smith looks favorable for the ‘Fins, the Panthers do not have a single weapon on offense they can’t do without – other than Newton.
Carolina’s backfield and receiving corps both have a bunch of decent players and no single star among them. The backfield is the stronger group now, with 235 lb James Stewart being worked into the offense coming off a long ankle surgery and rehab. FB Mike Tolbert is even more of a load and difficult to stop on short-yardage and goal-line stands.
The Panthers’ media guide claims Tolbert to be 5’9″ 246 lbs. Cross out pounds and insert kilograms, and you’re closer to his size….almost. I still maintain that Tolbert hit 245 pounds in the seventh grade, but it is what it is. He’s built low to the ground and just rolls like a bowling ball over the defensive pins before coming to a rest.
DeAngelo Williams rounds out the backfield and any of Carolina’s four runners (including Newton) are a threat to do damage so you can’t key on any one of them…and the Dolphins are only 25th in the NFL against the run while Carolina is 3rd.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
Panthers Offense vs. Dolphins Defense:
I said last week that the Panthers would try and open up the vertical passing game via play-action more and earlier against the Pats, and that’s exactly what they did. This week, I don’t see the huge need for doing so although I wouldn’t begrudge them for trying it a time or two just to keep the defense “honest” as the saying goes.
With the Dolphins hurting to stop the run, I think Rivera & Co. will run the ball 2:1 in the first half, challenging that defense to put up or shut up against the NFL’s deepest backfield. I think the Dolphins’ strengths/weaknesses on defense plays right into the base game plan that Carolina fields – run, run, play-action, and screens.
With James Stewart having VERY soft hands and Tolbert also being an accomplished pass-catcher out of the backfield, screens and flares to the backs should help keep some of the pass-rushing heat off of Cam Newton early on.
Look for the Panthers to try to rub it in Miami’s face, using ex-Dolphin WR Ted Ginn, Jr. as their deep threat on a couple of pass plays. It’s unlikely that Miami’s top corner, the above-mentioned Brent Grimes, will be covering Ginn, so the Panthers may just try a long ball to Ginn in the first half to show they’re not afraid to try it. That should force Miami to keep at least one safety deep while committing the other to stopping the run, allowing some underneath throws to open up for Cam.
Those deep comeback/deep out patterns are becoming Cam’s’ bread-and-butter pass plays as he has one of the NFL’s most live arms and can make those throws from the far hashmark. However, this week’s match-up against Grimes poses quite a challenge there as Grimes has been known to take a poorly-thrown out-pattern back to the house for six points, so Cam needs to really be on top of his game to avoid a costly mistake like that.
Otherwise, look for the Panthers to run more than they pass – and by quite a bit. I don’t think the running will be quite so easy as most think, however, as the Dolphins only give up 4.1 yds/carry. That’s not GREAT, but it’s not that bad considering their low ranking against the run.
At any rate, the Panthers should be able to choose between the run and the pass at any stage of the game if they can stay OUT of the dreaded third-and-long.
Dolphins offense vs. Panthers defense:
The Dolphins are weak running the ball while the Panthers have a defense that eats ball carriers. If Miami is to have ANY success at all on the ground, they’ll have to take some chances with some draw plays on 2nd or 3rd and “long-ish” downs like 2nd and 7 or 8 or 3rd and 6 or 7…that sort of thing.
What the ‘fins do NOT want to see is the Panthers jump out to an early lead and force Ryan Tannehill to the air every down. Unlike the Dolphins’ defensive side, the Panthers have the luxury of taking away deep threat Mike Wallace, who is as dangerous as they come with the ball in his hands in the open field. Wallace is going to be forced to run shorter routes, make catches that he’s sometimes flat-out dropped, and run after the catch for the offense to show any explosion.
The Dolphins cannot protect Tannehill from Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy with Tyson Clabo and Bryant McKinnie, period. It’s a dream match-up for Sean McDermott, the Panthers Defenisive Coordinator, to have his two Pro-Bowl caliber DEs facing off against two poorly-performing tackles and no depth behind them. Miami is going to have to come up with some clever blocking schemes if they think they have any chance of keeping those two ends at bay all day.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tannehill throw the ball 40+ times in this game. I’d say even 50 if I thought the Dolphins would be able to run 60 plays or more, but the only way I see them being successful is in utilizing the West-Coast system to a “T” – tons of short passes and screens to try to neutralize the Panthers pass rush, but I see the Panthers countering with a lot of press-man coverage to get those WRs off their routes.
With Tannehill’s mobility, they might even try rolling him out more and/or using a “moving pocket” of sorts to set him up wide of those “A-gap” blitzes McDermott likes to throw at offenses.
Moving Tannehill around does two things – it makes the pass rush a little easier to handle since the play is designed with a “controlled scramble” of the QB, if you will. The second thing is that rolling out/moving pocket plays take a little time to develop, which allows the WRs to get deeper patterns run.
One thing Ryan Tannehill DOES excel at is throwing on the run. He’s quite accurate on the move, and if I were Philbin % Co., that’s exactly how I would approach this Sabre-toothed catty defense with the personnel I have on offense. If Carolina’s defense DOES have a weakness, it’s that their cornerbacks are not as good as the rest of the team. They’re a solid bunch, but young, inexperienced for the most part (Drayton Florence being the exception), and have been known to let a guy get open down the field on occasion if the pass rush doesn’t get to the QB.
Therefore, I’d keep moving Tannehill and be ready to run the hurry-up offense at any moment and random times just to mess with defensive substitutions – especially if there’s a glaring mismatch on the field.
Overall, I think the Dolphins have the more difficult road in weekly game-planning and have to narrow down their playbook to be successful. I don’t see many five- and seven-step drops being called on passing plays and my gut tells me the two biggest threats they have in this game are going to be WR Brian Hartline on those short to mid-range passes in traffic and TE/FB Charles Clay should be the main dump-off/hot receiver.
With the bigger-“name” players like Hartline and Wallace get more of the press’ attention, Charles Clay has quietly become a complete NFL H-back and one with a very good set of hands to make plays.
Predicted Final Score:
Carolina Panthers 30, Miami Dolphins 6