Saturday, November 23, 2013

Four Point Stance: Panthers at Dolphins


The Miami Dolphins (5-5), whose season seemed just a few weeks ago to be in an uncontrollable nose-dive, have won two of their past three games and will look to add another when the red-hot Carolina Panthers (7-3) come to town.

Carolina's reeled off six straight wins, primarily on the strength of its top-ranked scoring defense. Its latest victory came last week in thrilling fashion against the New England Patriots, a signature performance by the Panthers and their young dual-threat quarterback, Cam Newton. He led a late 83-yard drive that culminated in a go-ahead touchdown pass to former Dolphins first round pick Ted Ginn, Jr.

Newton's versatility is a tremendous challenge for any opposing defense, but Miami's tallest task Sunday will be putting up points against a Panthers defense that ranks in the top five against both the pass and the run.

If the Dolphins' offense picked a time to develop the continuity the team hoped for going into the season, now would be good. Carolina's defense is allowing just 12.3 points per game during its winning streak.

The Dolphins have overcome a turbulent season up to this point to now stand at .500 and be in position to control their own destiny for a playoff berth, but the visiting Panthers will demand from them a near-flawless performance if they are to keep pace in the AFC.

When the Dolphins have the ball:
Carolina will be without star defensive end Charles Johnson Sunday, who was ruled out with a knee injury. Still remaining is another star, blossoming rookie defensive tackle Star Lotuleilei, who along with veteran Greg Hardy will make life difficult for Miami's depleted offensive line, which will likely also be without a key piece as Mike Pouncey continues his recovery from a gallbladder issue. A monumental effort from the Dolphins front-five will be key for the rest of the offense as it looks to strike balance against one of the NFL's truly elite units. Miami will need 20-plus points to win this one, but reaching that mark will be unlikely unless Ryan Tannehill has time to attempt and complete downfield passes. A solid complementary running game will be needed to sustain drives, as well.

When the Panthers have the ball:
For all the praise that's been poured on Newton as his team has ascended the standings, he remains to be an average-to-slighly above average passer. When packaged with his dynamic running skills he is very much a game-breaking force, but the Dolphins should focus on making Newton beat them with his arm. They'll need to also do a good job keeping tabs on his two best weapons, receiver Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen. If the Dolphins linebacker corps can adequately contain Newton's mobility and the secondary can stay disciplined while mixing up the coverages, this game should reduce into a low-scoring defensive battle. If not, this game could get away from Miami in a hurry.

Mike Sherman. While the Dolphins defense is a (relatively) even matchup with the Panthers offense, the balance of this game will hinge on how Sherman's gameplan attacks Carolina's defense. Can he find a way to scheme in enough protection and pocket movement so Tannehill can execute his downfield passing concepts? Will his offense know which matchups it should attack in the running game and which it should avoid? Can his play-calling stay creative and unpredictable against a very well-coached and instinctive unit? The answers to these questions will have major implications in the outcome of this game.

The Panthers are the only current NFL team yet to record a win over the Dolphins, losing all four matchups since the team's inception in 1996. Incredibly, no Panther other than Steve Smith has ever scored a touchdown against the Dolphins, with his four touchdown receptions in three games played representing every trip to the endzone Carolina has made in the series. In the last matchup in 2009, former Miami tailback Ricky Williams scored three touchdowns himself in relief of starter Ronnie Brown, who was lost for the season to a foot injury one week earlier, to lift the Dolphins to a 24-17 victory.

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