8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Panthers -9, Over/Under: 38
As we enter the second half of the season, the contenders and pretenders have begun to reveal themselves, though there are a number of teams that we still don’t quite know what to make of, which is the case tonight as the Carolina Panthers host the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football, at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. For the third consecutive week, the Dolphins (4-4, 3rd in AFC East) will be featured on Primetime in front of a National Audience, though they’d probably prefer to avoid the national spotlight for a while given their last two outings, both of which were defeats. Two weeks ago, Adam Gase’s charges were utterly embarrassed in a 40-0 thrashing in Baltimore, as the Ravens handed them their second shutout of the season. Last week, the played host to the struggling Oakland Raiders, who outlasted them in a sloppy 27-24 affair that was marred by penalties. Of course, this has been a team that has been behind the proverbial Eight Ball for months now, with Starting Quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s ACL Tear ending his season, followed by the late acquisition and assimilation of Jay Cutler, along with the delay caused by Hurricane Irma, and later the bizarre controversy involving Offensive Line Coach Chris Foerster, all doing little more than distract a team that was coming off of their best season since 2008. In essence, Gase and Co. have operated under extremely unique circumstances, with it a wonder that they’ve managed to remain competitive at all. Upon examining the Dolphins’ body of work at this point, the majority of their issues can be (unsurprisingly) laid at the feet of the Offense, which has been nothing short of a train wreck since Tannehill went down in Training Camp. Cutler, who was legitimately retired, was coaxed out of retirement on the strength of his rapport with Gase, whom was his Offense Coordinator in Chicago back in 2015, and thrown into a situation in which he needed to not only digest the Playbook, but also develop some semblance of chemistry with his new teammates, at an accelerated rate to boot, and as a result has presided over a flailing unit that has ranked among the league’s worst despite possessing a number of playmakers. Through eight games, Miami has scored an NFL-worst 14.5 Points per Game (32nd Overall) on 286.4 Total Yards (31st Overall), including 208.8 via the Pass (29th Overall) on 5.0 Net Yards per Attempt (29th Overall), along with another 77.6 via the Run (30th Overall) on 3.3 Yards per Carry (29th Overall). Knowing the Playbook is one thing, but being able to execute it in the proper context of the Offense is something else entirely. And while it’s unfair to place all the blame on Cutler (66.2%, 186.6 Y/G, 5.15 NY/A, 10 TD, 5 INT), who recently returned to action after sustaining Cracked Ribs three weeks ago in a miraculous 31-28 victory over the New York Jets, the veteran Quarterback placed himself in what was very much an impossible situation, with very little potential for success. Then again, $10 million is $10 million, folks, and we’ll leave it at that. With all that said, the curious absence of the Running Game has played as heavy a hand in their struggles as anything, and that was before Gase decided to send his team a message in the form of trading Pro Bowl Tailback Jay Ajayi to the Philadelphia Eagles shortly before the Trade Deadline eleven days ago. Ajayi spearheaded Miami’s success on the ground in 2016, rushing for 1,272 Yards and Eight Touchdowns for a team that ranked Ninth in Rushing Offense (114.0 Y/G) and Eighth in Yards per Carry (4.5 Y/C). Fast forward a year later, and the 24-Year Old looked like a shell of himself, managing a mere 465 Yards on 3.4 Yards per Carry before his departure, with rumors permeating from Dolphins Camp suggesting that his knees were shot, though his debut with the Eagles last weekend (8 CAR, 77 YDS, 1 TD) would suggest otherwise. In the meantime, the bulk of the carries will be distributed between the tandem of Damien Williams (19 CAR, 46 YDS) and Kenyan Drake (19 CAR, 94 YDS), who featured heavily in both the Running and Passing Games in the loss to the Raiders. The former carried the ball seven times for just Fourteen Yards, while the latter amassed Sixty-Nine Yards on Nine Carries, with each Tailback reeling in Six Receptions for a cumulative Eighty-Two Yards, with Williams scoring a Touchdown. Look for them continue to be a presence n the short-passing attack, as Gase looks to supplement the lack of a consistent force on the ground.
Meanwhile, the Panthers (6-3, 2nd in NFC South) have been a curious lot themselves, with their standing in the Conference highlighted by a series of ups and downs. Indeed, this has been a bit of a rollercoaster affair for Ron Rivera’s charges, who have managed to string together back-to-back victories as easily as they’ve conceded consecutive defeats. With that said, Carolina has a golden opportunity tonight to solidify their standing in the NFC heading into their Bye Week, as they remain hot on the heels of the streaking New Orleans Saints in the NFC South. After dropping back-to-back games against the likes of the Philadelphia Eagles (28-23) and Chicago Bears (17-3), they responded with key division wins over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (17-3) and most recently, the Atlanta Falcons (20-17) on the strength of a Defense that looks like it’s getting back to it’s impressive form of 2015, when they advanced all the way to the Super Bowl. On the season, the Panthers have allowed 17.7 Points per Game (4th Overall) on a league-low 274.1 Total Yards (1st Overall), including 195.7 Yards versus the Pass (6th Overall) on 5.7 Net Yards per Attempt (9th Overall), along with 78.4 Yards against the Run (2nd Overall) on 3.7 Yards per Carry (8th Overall), all the while racking up a whopping Twenty-Nine Sacks (2nd Overall). Curiously, this hasn’t translated to Turnovers the way it did two years ago, with this unit only snaring Eight Takeaways, the sixth-fewest in the NFL. Anyways, while the defense continues to keep them in games on a weekly basis, the Offense will need to improve significantly if this team is to indeed return to the status of a true contender for the Lombardi Trophy. While this unit has provided glimpses of being the big play machine they were in 2015, they’ve been far too inconsistent for Rivera’s taste. Carolina has scored just 18.7 Points per Game (24th Overall) on 330.8 Total Yards (21st Overall), but have been very prone to mistakes, with Sixteen Turnovers to their credit, fifth-most in the league at this point. Simply put, there isn’t much dynamism in this group anymore. Granted, they’ve been without Three-Time Pro Bowl Tight End Greg Olsen (Foot), who is currently on Injured Reserve with a fractured foot suffered mid-September, and they also sent underachieving Receiver Kelvin Benjamin (32 REC, 475 YDS, 2 TD) to the Buffalo Bills in a trade shortly before the Deadline, leaving this unit without the kind of weapons they had entering the campaign. And then there is Rookie Tailback Christian McAffrey, whom they selected with the Eighth Overall Pick in the NFL Draft. The versatile Heisman Finalist was one of the most dangerous players in the country during his stay at Stanford, but has struggled to find his place with the Panthers, who have utilized him far more in the Passing Game (54 REC, 406 YDS, 2 TD), than in the Running Game (64 CAR, 183 YDS, 1 TD). Even with his slight frame (5-11, 202 lbs), it’s a bit surprising that the Coaching Staff hasn’t been able to mix him into the ground game more prominently, though the fact that he has been targeted more times than any other Panther via the pass (Seventy-Two Targets) is a testament to their confidence in his soft hands and route-running acumen. Of course, at the end of the day, this team will continue to live and die on the strength of Cam Newton (62.4%, 219.8 Y/G, 5.87 NY/A, 10 TD, 11 INT), which depending on how you view that, can be a blessing or a curse. Coming off a disappointing campaign in which he sustained a number of injuries, Newton’s 2017 term has been a bit of a mixed bag, as the Coaching Staff continues to waft back and forth between shackling the dual-threat Quarterback in the Pocket in a means to preserve his health, and unleashing his athletic ability, which also opens him up to potentially jarring hits. It’s quite a Catch 22 for Rivera, who knows just how important Newton is to his team’s fortunes. So let’s take a look at the good and the bad for No. One thus far. In terms of good, Newton is completing a career-best 62.4% of his Attempts, up from a career-worst 52.9% a year ago, while factoring into the Running Game far more heavily than he did in the previous term, rushing for 341 Yards and Four Touchdowns on Sixty-Nine Carries, with his 37.9 Yards per Game and 7.7 Yards per Carry easily eclipsing those same figures form 2015. In regards to bad, he’s thrown a league-worst Eleven Interceptions, while taking Twenty-Three Sacks, which translates to getting dropped on 7.4% of his drop-backs, up from 6.6% a year ago. Altogether, this paints the picture of a Quarterback that while capable of making breathtaking plays with his legs outside of the Pocket, continues to look uncomfortable when contained in the Pocket, which in the long run is where Rivera and his Staff would prefer him to be, whereas letting him run wild and unabated will likely shorten the duration of his career, despite offering the potential of substantial short-term success. it’s hard to believe that we’re still having this discussion seven years into his career, but here we are, folks, once again.