McCaffrey Sizzles, Matt Kalil Struggles, and Cam Newton Yet to Find His Groove

The Carolina Panthers hosted the Miami Dolphins for their first home preseason game this Friday night. There was no midfield logo, despite teases from Carolina media members throughout the day. Carolina walked away with a 27-20 victory and advanced to 2-0 in the preseason despite an erratic showing from Cam Newton featuring him running for his life much because of the atrocious play of left tackle Matt Kalil. 

Last week, Christian McCaffrey flashed moments of excitement in Buffalo, but tonight  McCaffrey electrified Bank of America Stadium with a 71-yard touchdown run and 110 total yards. Unlike past times where McCaffrey’s success originated from his role in the passing game, McCaffrey showed vision and power as he burst through the tackles repeatedly throughout the night. It’s clear Carolina wants to feature McCaffrey more in the running attack and he has responded to the call thus far. 

The momentum McCaffrey created continued in the running attack throughout the night. Carolina finished with 226 yards rushing, averaging 7.3 yards per carry. McCaffrey, Cameron Artis-Payne, and Elijah Hood all rushed for touchdowns. CJ Anderson averaged 4.9 yards per carry and Kenjon Barner gashed Miami for 72 yards on 5 carries. 

Carolina’s offensive game, however, wasn’t entirely one dimensional. Newton completed 9 of 12 passes for 179 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. At moments, Newton looked deadly, throwing lasers from the far left hash to the right sideline just over the corners head but under the safety coverage landing precisely in Torrey Smith’s hands. In the very next moment, Newton locked in on Greg Olsen over the middle, oblivious to the corner in a perfect position to intercept the ball. Newton would rebound in the second quarter when he hit Ian Thomas in stride, dragging from left to right, for a 27-yd touchdown. 

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As Newton vacillated, one constant threatened to ruin the night--Matt Kalil. Looking foolish most of the time, Kalil struggled to keep up with speed-rusher Robert Quinn, surrendering two sacks and uncountable pressures. Kalil, who didn’t have the best of games last week, has yet to show he can be counted on as an effective starter. Things only got worse when Carolina replaced starting center Ryan Kalil with backup Greg Van Roten. The pressure continued as Kalil struggled, but now it was complicated as Van Roten botched one of his first snaps and struggled to fend off pressure up the middle from Miami’s defense. The offensive line would struggle all night in pass protection and looks to be the greatest challenge for this team moving forward. 

There were some especially positive aspects of Carolina’s performance beyond that of McCaffrey and the running game. Curtis Samuel made a couple of electric plays, Marquis Haynes showed off the speed-rush, and Carolina’s secondary play improved notably. Rookies like Donte Jackson and Ian Thomas looked not only like they belonged, but as if they were ready to make an immediate impact on the team. Corn Elder, who missed his entire rookie season, reeled in a fantastic interception that he tipped up with one hand and corralled with the other. Even Efe Obada, an international player from London who has almost no experience with football, notched a sack, showing the athleticism that has landed him an opportunity to make the team or at least the practice squad. 

Carolina’s performance tonight clearly wasn’t flawless. Newton has yet to have a performance that validates he is ready to start the season on a roll and there are worries about both the depth and personnel of Carolina’s offensive line. The Panthers improved performance both offensively and defensively from Buffalo to Miami shows the support of a solid coaching staff. Norv Turner’s offense has been effective, bordering on plain electrifying and Carolina’s improved secondary and defensive line play implies that first-year defensive coordinator Eric Washington.

The preseason has been a mixed bag for the Panthers. Next Friday Carolina hosts the 2-0 New England Patriots for the most telling game of the preseason. It’s the game that gives the best peek into where a team is at as they traditionally play their starters together for the longest stretch before the regular season. The always well-coached and formidable Patriots will not only prove Carolina's most difficult challenge this season but perhaps be a diviner of what is to come. 

By Tony Dunn
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