Game preview: Panthers at Dolphins

Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WSPA) – The Panthers at Dolphins game is previewed ahead of Sunday’s showdown in Miami.

This is part of a season-long preview series where we’ll break down both teams, primarily the opponent, ahead of the matchup and finish with some ‘keys of the game’ for the Panthers.

*All stats are provided by pro-football-reference.com

Miami Dolphins

A team that had underperformed for the majority of the season now finds itself riding a three-game winning streak after being 1-7. Granted two of those wins have come against the Texans and Jets, not necessarily intimidating opponents this year, but they also beat the 7-3 Ravens during that stretch. They’re now 4-7, getting healthier, and hitting their stride. 

After missing second year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa for a chunk of games this season, the former Alabama signal caller has found a rhythm within the offense in recent weeks and has a passer rating over 100 in each of the last two games. Though he can move the pocket Tua’s not overly mobile and dangerous with his legs, but rather relies on rhythm throws and above average accuracy to do damage. His depth on throws stayed relatively short for much of last year and even the beginning of this season, but he’s since taken some deeper shots in the middle and deep portions of the field. 

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – NOVEMBER 21: Tua Tagovailoa #1 of the Miami Dolphins looks to pass during the second half of the game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on November 21, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

One of those targets that excels in the middle of the field is tight end Mike Gesicki, who is much closer to a wide receiver than tight end in the passing game. Gesicki is having arguably his best season as a pro, and is second on the team in receptions (49) and yards (579). And he has standout speed for a guy who’s 6’6” 247 pounds. The Dolphins like to get him out in space and he’ll line up in various spots to create match-up problems, particularly in the slot. A reliable option on third downs, Gesicki will garner attention from the Panthers this week in key moments that include the red zone. 

Jaylen Waddle, Tagovailoa’s college teammate, is by far the top option in the passing attack. An exceptional route runner, Waddle routinely gets open. And although he hasn’t eclipsed the 100 yard mark, he’s been pretty consistent for the Dolphins. He’s catching over 73% of his targets this season which ranks near the top among wide receivers. He’s a viable option outside the numbers and can get some good yards after the catch as well. Waddle leads the team in receptions (68), yards (622) and is second with three receiving touchdowns. 

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – NOVEMBER 21: Jaylen Waddle #17 of the Miami Dolphins scores a touchdown in the first quarter of the game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on November 21, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

At running back they primarily feature Myles Gaskin as the lead rusher. His production on the ground has been somewhat lackluster this season, though a lot of that can be chalked up to the team never being able to establish the run amid early deficits. Also, their offensive line has struggled mightily thus far, and ranks dead last as a unit by Pro Football Focus. Nonetheless, Gaskin has been more dangerous as a pass catcher out of the backfield with 41 catches for 209 yards and four touchdowns (team-high). 

On the defensive side, they’ve struggled to get consistent pressure on the quarterback, but have a few pieces that are problematic for opposing offenses. Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, a former Clemson Tiger, is stout on the interior and really good against the run. He plugs up holes often and can get a push on opposing centers, especially. With Matt Paradis out for the season, Carolina’s backup Pat Elflein will be tested in this one. At the edge, rookie Jaelan Phillips has been a bright spot for a unit that’s allowed the sixth most points in the NFL. He has 3.5 sacks in limited action and has seen much more in recent outings. He’s rangy and athletic with a speed rush that exposes the more flat-footed tackles. Their cornerback room is probably the best on the defensive side with Byron Jones and Xavien Howard. Howard is an all-around playmaker and can shut down an offense’s top target. This season he has two interceptions, two forced fumbles and rumble recoveries (including a touchdown), and a whopping 12 pass deflections. The Panthers will likely avoid him at all costs on Sunday. Jones has been a bit quieter this season, but is still very good in man coverage and is probably the best run defender among the corners. 

The Dolphins injury report can be seen below: 

Carolina Panthers

In his first full-time action with the team this season, Cam Newton looked great last Sunday against Washington in what was ultimately a losing effort. He completed over 77% of his passes for two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also added 46 yards rushing and a touchdown as well. It’s clear Newton injects a spark in the team, and for the time being it appears the offense has a chance to be a solid unit moving forward. 

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – NOVEMBER 21: Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers rushes for a 24-yard touchdown against the Washington Football Team in the second quarter of the game at Bank of America Stadium on November 21, 2021 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

As is typical, Christian McCaffrey once again cleared 100 yards and hauled in his first receiving touchdown of the season last week. With team’s now having to account for Newton’s rushing ability on any given play, things have seemingly opened up even more for the All-Pro running back. Miami is in the middle of the pack when it comes to their performance against opposing rushers, providing a key opportunity for McCaffrey and Newton to take advantage this week. Meanwhile D.J. Moore caught his first touchdown since October 3 while Robby Anderson recorded five catches for just the second time this year. They’ll look to keep building on that rapport against a challenging secondary. 

The Panthers injury report can be seen below:

Keys to the game

Force Dolphins to throw: Miami’s receiving corps is dangerous, but if they’re put in a position where they have to throw often it will benefit Carolina in the long run. When having to throw 35 or more times in a game, Tua is 0-5 dating back to last season.

Cam on the run: Everyone in the league knows Cam is a threat to run, but it helps to get him going early to keep defenses on notice. His involvement out of the backfield should help open things up on the outside, which will give the Panthers receiving corps the best chance at producing against tough matchups.

Push the pocket: The Panthers create pressure a league-best 28.8% of the time to go along with 30 sacks (3rd in NFL). They have a phenomenal matchup against the Miami o-line and a pocket passer. This is a great set-up for Brian Burns and company to pin their ears back and get after Tua.

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