Panthers vs Jets: 10 Key Players, Things to Watch for New York

Ryan AlfieriCorrespondent IIIAugust 23, 2012

Panthers vs Jets: 10 Key Players, Things to Watch for New York

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    The Jets preseason has not been gone smoothly, to say the least. The neglected holes on the team are starting to rear their ugly head, to the point where the Tebow-Sanchez debate seems moot and irrelevant. 

    With a new right tackle in place to try and help get the Jets' offense back on track, this upcoming game will be a huge for the Jets' psyche. Remember, this is the only team in the NFL that has yet to score an offensive touchdown this year.

    Here are 10 things to watch in the Jets' third preseason matchup against the Panthers

Austin Howard

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    Who would have thought that Austin Howard, not Tim Tebow, would be the most-talked-about Jet headed into the twilight days of training camp?

    Now that Wayne Hunter's days as a starter are over, Howard will have an opportunity to prove his worth working with the first team. 

    He did get the start in the first preseason game against the Bengals, and despite protection issues that were spread throughout the line, Howard held his own on an individual level. However, he has not dealt with the "starter" label yet, which could possibly affect his approach in either a negative or positive manner. 

    The good news is, outside of Charles Johnson, the Panthers do not have many elite rushers, so this is a good matchup for Howard to ease his way in and build up his confidence. 

    If he falters, however, it will be a major cause for concern for the Jets, who are running out of options at right tackle as the regular season rapidly approaches. 

Kenrick Ellis vs. Ryan Kalil

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    Because of a back injury to Sione Pouha, Kenrick Ellis is getting a ton of extra time with the starters this preseason. He had a solid outing against the Giants, but they have one of the weaker interior lines in football.

    This week, he will have his toughest challenge yet going against stud center Ryan Kalil while trying to deal with the Panthers' dynamic running back tandem in Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. 

    Rex Ryan told Manish Mehta of the Daily News that he was happy with the way Ellis has been playing (in response to Ellis not getting suspended by the NFL): "I’m really excited about how Kenrick’s playing and I’m glad to hear that."

    If injuries to Pouha keep flaring up, the Jets are going to need to know if their primary backup in Ellis can step in for extensive periods. This will be a great test for the third-round pick out of Hampton.  

Will the Jets Make an Adjustments for Cam Newton?

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    Because of his unique skill set as both a runner and a passer, playing against Cam Newton is not like playing any other quarterback. 

    Obviously, if this was a regular season game, the Jets would spend every waking moment trying to come up with a way to stop the sophomore sensation. Since this is still a preseason game, will the Jets play Newton any differently?

    As it turns out, the Jets have been doing a bit game-planning for Sunday's game, as reported by Seth Walder of the Daily News:

    Matt Simms currently acting as Cam Newton while the defense game plans. #nyj

    — Seth Walder (@SethWalderNYDN) August 23, 2012

    Why would the Jets bother trying to game-plan for a rather unique offense in a preseason game?

    This being the third preseason game, starters will likely play well into the third quarter. The Jets are trying to make this game as close to a simulation to a regular-season game as possible, which includes simulating the week of practice leading up to the game. 

    Also, I doubt Rex Ryan wants to see his defense get pushed around for 45 minutes, whether this game counts or not. 

#Waynewatch

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    In case you missed last Saturday's debacle of a performance from right tackle Wayne Hunter, here is a tidbit to put his play into perspective: 

    "Wayne Hunter" was the No. 1 trending topic Worldwide on Twitter for several hours after the game. That's right—for a brief moment, Hunter was more popular than Tim Tebow, Justin Beiber and Kim Kardashian. Quite a feat for an offensive lineman. 

    Because of his ineptitude, Hunter has been removed from his starting post in favor of the young Austin Howard. Hunter will resume his former role as a jumbo tight end, or in other words, a sixth offensive lineman.  

    Hunter has succeeded in this role before; it was how he got the starting right tackle gig in the first place. But will he be able to put all of the other drama behind him and learn Sparano's new offense form a new position in time to play effectively?

    (h/t Adam Schien of SNY for the headline)

Who Will Emerge out of the Backfield?

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    After a rather strong performance against the Giants, Shonn Greene appears to be set and ready to go into the next season as the starter. 

    However, the depth chart behind Greene is getting murky as Bilal Powell and Joe McKnight continue to battle for backup duties. 

    So far, Bilal Powell has been getting the reps with the first team as the third-down back, but McKnight has been more explosive as a runner. Granted, McKnight has been working against lesser competition, but for a team that is so desperate for offensive playmakers, they are going to have a hard time keeping a player as talented as McKnight on the bench. 

    The Jets will be up against one of the softer run defenses in the league in Carolina, so both players should have a solid day on the ground. The difference between the two could lie in pass protection, where Powell has been the superior of the two so far. 

Darrelle Revis vs. Steve Smith

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    It may be just a preseason game, but that hardly matters for these two ultra-competitive players. 

    Steve Smith has built a career on scrappiness, evidenced by the tussle he got into with Vontae Davis last week. 

    At the same time, Revis is one oft he most physical corners in the league, especially at the line of scrimmage. The last time these two met in the regular season back in 2009, Revis won the battle decisively, intercepting two passes and only allowing Smith to reel in one pass. 

    No matter what happens, both of these guys are going to go at each other's throats, and it will be a blast to watch. 

    UPDATE: Unfortunately, Smith has come down with a foot infection, which puts the possibility of this matchup in jeopardy.

Will Mo Wilk Ever Begin to Show Dominance?

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    Amidst all of the offensive drama the Jets have endured this offseason, Muhammad Wilkerson has quietly been a massive disappointment so far, especially when you take into account all of the hype he was getting in training camp.

    He has not been Gholston-esque in terms of being completely invisible, but I expected more splash plays. Muhammad has not been able to use his length and athleticism to dominant opponents like I had expected him too by now. 

    Wilkerson will get a tough test going against a strong running attack in Carolina. While it certainly won't be easy, turning in a dominant performance against on Sunday will certainly put the rest of the league on notice. 

Is D'Brickashaw Ferguson Regressing?

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    While New York celebrates the benching of the embattled Wayne Hunter, "Core Four" member D'Brickashaw Ferguson is having struggles of his own. 

    He struggled during most of last year, giving up handfuls of sacks to middle-of-the-road pass-rushers. At the time, it was tossed up due to lack of continuity on the line and him trying to do too much in a dysfunctional offense. 

    However, Ferguson's play has not improved over the summer. Osi Umenyiora abused him all night long last week, and he does not get an easier matchup going up against Charles Johnson on Sunday. 

    At some point, Ferguson needs to turn in a shutdown performance, or this disturbing trend is going to become too troublesome to ignore any further. 

Which Receiver Will Seperate Themselves?

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    While Santonio Holmes and Jeremy Kerley have missed most of training camp with injuries, the other young guys have had ample opportunities to step up and earn a job, but no one has taken the reins. 

    Stephen Hill has been inconsistent and is developing a case of the dropsies. Of all of the young receivers, seventh-round pick Jordan White has looked the most polished and dependable, as he led the Jets in receiving in their game against the Giants. 

    Patrick Turner has been decent, but he has not been able to get any kind of separation to give Sanchez a clear target to throw to.

    Look for players like Royce Pollard and Dexter Jackson to try and make the most of limited time on Sunday. If they don't make a huge impression on the coaches, it is going to be nearly impossible for them to make the final roster. 

How Will Mark Sanchez Play?

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    Somehow, Mark Sanchez has become one of the least-talked-about Jets in a matter of days. 

    While his ugly interception late in the second half last game was brutal, he was playing well until that point, especially when you consider the circumstances. He was under pressure all night long, and when he did get decent protection, his receivers could not get separation. 

    Going up against a Carolina defense that is close to average than good, Sanchez should put together a strong outing, assuming he gets decent protection and his weapons help him out a bit. 

    However, he will need to show that he has forgotten about Saturday's debacle and the whole "only team that has not scored a touchdown thing" is not getting to his head. 

    If the good Sanchez shows up, it will be just what the Jets need to get back on track. If the bad one shows up, it would be catastrophic for a team to head into 2012 without one decent stretch of offensive football under their belt.