Two of last season’s turnaround teams met in Carolina last night, with each looking to continue their preparations for a season to maintain that positive momentum. Both teams are popular picks not to return to the post-season but on this showing both teams can be optimistic that much of what made them playoff teams a year ago still remains.
For the home team, Cam Newton made his preseason bow after missing the opener and though he led two touchdown drives, his own accuracy was a little wide of the mark as he sought to knock the rust off. On defense there were strong displays up front but perhaps more importantly both starting corners put in solid displays.
The visiting Chiefs also had some solid efforts from a defense that formed the core of their playoff push a year ago, Tamba Hali picking up a couple of hurries with the starters. On offense there were sparks from the skill positions but the starting offensive line looked creaky in pass protection with progress needed quickly in that department.
Kansas City – Three Performances of Note
Kelce Provides a Dilemma
The Chiefs got plenty of snaps from their tight ends a year ago. Free agent signing Anthony Fasano was a safe pair of hands as both a blocker and receiver while Sean McGrath did plenty of solid working as a supplementary blocker. What neither of those offered, though, was a spark in the passing game like Travis Kelce showed last night. Last season Fasano forced just two missed tackles. Kelce (29 snaps, +2.2 receiving) doubled that last night alone and through two preseason games has forced seven on six receptions. This has to be tempered by saying that Kelce is doing much of this work against defenders well down the depth chart, but with the Chiefs’ dearth of talent at receiver you would think that they need to find out fast if Kelce can replicate this against first-stringers to add a much needed extra weapon to Alex Smith’s arsenal.
Beaten Up on the Corners
The stat lines for Marcus Cooper (1-of-3, 13 yards) might not look as bad as that of starting partner Sean Smith (3-of-3, 66 yards) but both put in poor displays in coverage last night. Each was guilty of a penalty to go with the stats that showed up and Cooper got lucky on another third down play with an inaccurate throw by Derek Anderson sparing him a conversion allowed. Cooper’s form fell away drastically in the second half of last season and after jettisoning Brandon Flowers the Chiefs will be eager to see him reproduce his early-season form. Smith’s profile as an inconsistent performer is well set and he is simply prone to displays like this, the Chiefs will just hope that he strikes a balance similar to that of last season with more good games than bad.
Teething Problems Up Front
After the departure of three key offensive linemen you would excuse the Chiefs’ for being off the pace up front and they certainly struggled in their first extended outing of preseason. All five starting linemen earned negative grades in pass protection with Eric Fisher (40 snaps, -1.4 overall), Jeff Allen and Zach Fulton (40 snaps, -4.6 overall) surrendering multiple pressures. Conceding the most pressure was new right guard Fulton who let up a pair of hits and a pair of hurries, getting started early as Star Lotulelei drove outside of him for a hurry early in the game. The bright point, and potential pressure for Fulton’s starting job, came from new signing Jeff Linkenbach (27 snaps, +3.8 overall) who surrendered no pressure with the second team and put in a very strong run-blocking display to offer a modicum of hope.
Carolina – Three Performances of Note
Benjamin Fired Up in First Start with Newton
Though he didn’t match the spectacular grab he pulled in against the Bills last week, first-round receiver Kelvin Benjamin showed on just two plays the sort of skills that could see him make an immediate impact. Benjamin’s biggest attributes are his size and strength which he put to good use last night beating a physical corner in Steve Smith on in-breaking routes for each of his catches. The opportunities will be there for Benjamin to contribute and he has certainly shown the ability in the first two weeks of preseason to make plays against man coverage. His apparent strength on post and dig routes fits well with Cam Newton’s passing profile from last year and Panthers fans will be eager to see these two form a productive pairing right away.
Lotulelei Stars Again
Arguably the biggest factor in the Panthers’ turn around last season was the play of their defensive tackles. From having perennially one of the worst defensive interiors in the league, the Panthers hit on two top draft picks, giving them immediate quality and depth where they had none since Kris Jenkins’ departure. Last night Star Lotulelei flashed his ability as a pass rusher with a sack and a hurry against Allen and Fulton, respectively. He was also his usual stout self against the run in an accomplished, albeit brief, all-around display. The Panthers’ depth showed its hand as well with Dwan Edwards adding a pair of hits along with a nullified hurry. The front wall is key to allowing Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly to flow and make plays coming forward.
White Continues to His Fast Start
The other undrafted corner to make his mark last season aside from Cooper was Carolina’s Melvin White. While Cooper fell off as the season went on, White came up with strong games in the final two weeks of the season to help the Panthers to a division crown. Now in the starting lineup, White served notice of potentially big things to come this year with a strong game in run support (+1.1) and coverage (+2.2) last night. White led both teams with four defensive stops and added a pass defense, to boot. The Panthers are short on proven quality at corner so a standout second season from White would go a long way to answering one of their biggest question marks.
– In spite of registering his first sack of the preseason this was a crash back down to earth for Dee Ford (34 snaps, -4.1 overall), struggling in every phase of the game.
– Through two preseason games, Kelce is averaging 14.5 yards per reception after the catch.
– A welcome debut from Jonathan Stewart who carried four times on 11 snaps converting on two touchdown runs.
PFF Game Ball
Travis Kelce forced a missed tackle on all but one of his receptions last night, the one he didn’t ended in a touchdown dragging the tackle of Robert Lester to the end zone. Performances like this should see him feature more with the Chiefs’ first string.
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