Having pushed their way into the inner circle of serious contenders with recent wins over San Francisco and New England, the Panthers have moved beyond ‘ones to watch’ status and have secured targets to their backs. The Dolphins have fought their way out of a four-game slump to find inconsistent performances at least a step in the right direction.
With Carolina missing a key piece of their defensive front and Miami struggling to stay relevant, there are questions going into this game that could send it in either direction. Here are a few points to consider as the Panthers, winners of six straight, head to Florida to face a 5-5 Dolphin team that has won two of their last seven.
Dynamic Duo, Minus One
With his pass-rushing partner Charles Johnson shelved for the immediate future, Carolina’s Greg Hardy will be expected to provide the bulk of the Panthers’ edge pressure while a possible platoon fills the gap on the other side. Working from the defense’s right on nearly 90% of his pass-rushing snaps, Hardy has produced 45 total pressures (sixth among 4-3 DEs) and a Pass Rushing Productivity rating of 11.3 (seventh). Illustrating the hole left by Johnson’s absence, both of those Hardy figures are ones Johnson has eclipsed. Though there may be more than one player getting a share of Johnson’s snaps, Mario Addison is a good bet to be the primary contributor as he’s generated more pressure in his limited opportunity than the others, Frank Alexander and Wes Horton, have combined.
Hoping to fend off Hardy, Miami left tackle Bryant McKinnie has picked up his only two green-graded games of the season as a pass blocker since coming over in the Week 8 trade from Baltimore. He’s allowed 10 total pressures in the four games as a Dolphin, compared to the 20 he gave up in five games before, though three of the recent set have been sacks, while he only surrendered one as a Raven. Opposite McKinnie and in line to face the Johnson replacements, Tyson Clabo has rebounded on the right since the Dolphin O-line shake-up with three weeks pointing up to follow the benching that came after seven weeks of grades pulling him down.
The offseason splash that was the Mike Wallace signing in Miami has yet to bear fruit for the up-and-down Dolphins. Brought in to provide a field-stretching influence, Wallace leads the team with 17 deep ball targets, 20% of his total targets, but has hauled in just three – though, to be fair to him, he’s only dropped one, so the majority simply haven’t been catchable. The connection just hasn’t been there with quarterback Ryan Tannehill as evidenced by the WR rating of 52.0 on all throws Wallace’s way. The 83 total Tannehill-to-Wallace targets have produced one touchdown to go with five interceptions and despite running 403 routes (more than all but six other receivers), 33 others have put up more yards. In fact, Wallace’s Yards per Route Run of 1.33 ranks 67th of 91 receivers with at least 30 targets.
A receiving grade in the Bottom 10 of all receivers (-5.7) has taken Wallace’s stock further down following the drop he saw from 2011 to 2012, his final seasons in Pittsburgh (+11.2 to -1.5), and is surely not what was hoped for when the $30 million guaranteed was sent his way.
In Line for a Letdown?
The Panthers entered their Week 10 contest in San Francisco looking for validation and took the opportunity to make their mark. Their Monday Night win over New England the following week effectively erased any doubts that the team’s winning ways were more than the result of a soft schedule and set them firmly in the group of contenders at the top of the league. Standing out in a look ahead at their final stretch are the two head-to-heads with the Saints – the team they now trail by a single game in the NFC South – but the first of those doesn’t arrive for two weeks. In the meantime, this trip to Miami is their first task and the combination of recent hurdles cleared and an eye on the future could position this as an emotional valley game.
The Dolphins, too, could be less than zeroed in. At 5-5 and on the edge of the playoff race, Miami trails New England by two games in the East and four of their last five are games in the division and look like must-have’s. Their recent off-field issues factored in, it may not be as easy as it otherwise would be to fully focus on the Carolina team coming to town, but with the Panthers getting so much attention lately, the focus factor probably falls in the ‘Phins favor.
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