Carolina vs. New England: Panthers' Third Preseason Game Preview
The Carolina Panthers (1-1) will make their first road trip of the preseason when they visit the New England Patriots (1-1) Friday night. This will be the first meeting between the two teams since the controversial ending during their Monday Night Football contest last November.
While this upcoming game, the third for both teams, may be meaningless in terms of wins and losses, the Patriots have to be thinking about a measure of revenge since the Panthers escaped that game with a win.
The regular season is almost here and that means roster cuts are just around the corner. The good news is the NFL approved an expansion of practice squad rosters from eight to 10 players. This bodes well for Carolina players like quarterback Joe Webb and Fozzy Whittaker; both men have made strong cases this preseason to make the 53-man roster.
Carolina will get another look at their starting quarterback, Cam Newton. The fourth-year signal-caller missed the preseason opener, but started the second game last week and played almost the entire first half. Jonathan Stewart looked impressive in his return last week and gave the coaches and fans reason for optimism with his two scores. If he stays healthy, he and Mike Tolbert could be very potent down near the goal line.
There are a lot of things to cover for this week's game. Let's get to it.
Carolina's Second Preseason Game Recap
The strong rushing performances of Jonathan Stewart and Fozzy Whittaker carried the Carolina Panthers to a 28-16 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. Their performances were so impressive that it gave fans reason to believe the running game can be a strength in 2014. Cam Newton's return was solid, but he still has some rust he needs to shake off.
Brenton Bersin laid claim to the final wide receiver spot with his 16-yard touchdown grab from backup quarterback Derek Anderson. The Wofford product looks poised to make the final roster. Rookie Kelvin Benjamin had a decent night (two receptions for 41 yards on four targets). He did have to be pulled aside by head coach Ron Rivera at one point after getting into a sideline altercation with Kansas City defensive back Chris Owens.
Another player, Josh Norman, was pulled off the field for his actions in last week's game. Rivera stressed the importance of composure on the field, which was something that was lacking in Carolina's playoff defeat to San Francisco back in January.
For the most part, the Panthers looked good in their last home preseason game. There is still a lot of work to be done between now and the season opener, but for now, there are no immediate red flags to be concerned about.
News and Notes
This move comes as bit of a surprise since Barner was projected to be the team's primary return man on special teams. Barner will be reunited with his old college coach, Chip Kelly, when he reports to the Eagles. Carolina will get a conditional seventh-round pick in next year's draft as part of the deal.
In the meantime, this opens the door for Philly Brown and Kealoha Pilares to assume the return duties when the season opens.
Practice Squad Expansion Means More Opportunities
Ask head coach Ron Rivera or general manager Dave Gettleman about the expansion of the practice squad, and they will give you their seal of approval. As noted earlier in the slide show, the league gave teams two more practice squad spots, upping the number to 10.
Panthers.com staff writer, Max Henson got this response regarding the expansion from Gettleman on Tuesday, "From a player development standpoint it's a plus, most definitely. This is competitive, and there are some guys that you have to let go that you don't want to. And (the expansion) is definitely a positive move for the players; it keeps them in the game."
Considering the contributions of some depth chart players this summer, the Panthers stand to benefit from the expansion.
Under-the-Radar Players Leaving Their Mark
Joe Webb, Fozzy Whittaker and Brenton Bersin each have had a number of positive things said about them so far this preseason. It's possible that all three could make the team's final roster, but if not, those two extra practice squad spots will become an asset.
Webb looked good in the Panthers' preseason opener, while Whittaker and Bersin stood out last week against Kansas City. It still remains to be seen if this trio suits up in Week 1.
Composure Equals Success
Both Josh Norman and Kelvin Benjamin were pulled from the field following extra-curricular activities that saw the latter get flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Ron Rivera was quick to pull his guys aside and correct their actions.
If Carolina is to be successful, they will have to refrain from making stupid mistakes like head-butting opponents or getting in their faces. The Panthers did well keeping their cool in their game against St. Louis last year when things got chippy between the two squads.
Carolina cannot afford setbacks that come as the result of stupid penalties.
|Roman Harper, S||Toe||Out|
|Mike McNeill, TE||Knee||Out|
|Charles Johnson, DE||Hamstring||Out|
|Kealoha Pilares, WR/KR||Ankle||Probable|
|Josh Thomas, CB||NFI||Out|
Roman Harper is still battling the turf toe injury, but has been upgraded to probable on the injury report. It's unclear if he will suit up Friday and it's possible he will sit again so he can be ready to go by Week 1. Mike McNeill is losing precious time with his knee injury and it could cost him a roster spot with Brandon Williams and Ed Dickson playing well behind Greg Olsen.
Charles Johnson appeared in last week's game after missing a few days with a sore hamstring. The Carolina coaching staff still has him taking it easy, but he should be ready to play Friday night. Regardless, expect a steady rotation of defensive ends to continue during the preseason.
Kealoha Pilares has a history of injury problems, but the ankle shouldn't limit him too much. With the trade of Kenjon Barner, his chances of making the team as a special teams player have increased tremendously. However, he needs to show he can be a weapon on the field and is not slowed by a nagging injury. Last week, rookie Philly Brown averaged 32.5 yards on kick returns, so he has some competition.
It was not mentioned on the injury report, but according to ESPN's David Newton's Twitter account, defensive end Charles Johnson and several others will not play in Friday's game.
Other notable Carolina players who are out are linebacker Chase Blackburn, rookie guard Trai Turner, tackle Nate Chandler, rookie safety Tre Boston and rookie running back Darrin Reaves.
Note: * - Denotes injury update made at 12:00 PM on August 22nd.
X-Factors and Matchups to Watch
Carolina Secondary vs. Tom Brady
This should be a given. The quality of Brady's weapons on the outside may have deteriorated over the last couple of years, but the man is still an elite quarterback and could prove to be a handful early in the game. The secret to getting him off the field sooner rather than later will be to generate an effective pass rush that will put him on his heels.
Kelvin Benjamin vs. Darrelle Revis
It may be a preseason game, but this should be a fun matchup to watch. Benjamin has looked solid in camp and in preseason action, seldom showing signs of being a first-year player. He will most likely go one-on-one with Revis Island, as Ron Rivera will challenge his young receiver against one of the league's best. The early advantage goes to Revis, but Benjamin may have a surprise or two up his sleeve.
Carolina Defensive Backs vs. Brandon LaFell
Whether Carolina fans love him or hate him, Brandon LaFell signing with New England in the offseason was a bit surprising.
He wasn't the fastest receiver in Carolina during his tenure there, but he had his moments. Since this will be the Patriots only meeting with the Panthers in 2014, LaFell will be hoping to make a statement Friday night. Currently, he is buried on New England's wide receiver depth chart, so the bulk of his action could take place against Carolina's rookies and reserve players.
Panthers' X-Factor: Starting Linebackers
The Panthers will rely on the heart of defense, its starting linebackers, to keep the game close and prevent Tom Brady from being able to get comfortable in the pocket. Luke Kuechly looks to be in midseason form and Thomas Davis is ready for another stellar year. If the starters at linebacker can keep the Patriots off the board or limit them to field goals, the Panthers will have a chance to come away with the win.
As was the case with the previous two games, Ron Rivera and company will be concentrating more on the fundamentals and execution than the final outcome. A win is nice, but the need to keep players healthy and find the proverbial "diamond in the rough" are far more important at this stage of season.
Friday night's game between Carolina and New England should be a good one.
The Patriots lit up the scoreboard last week against Philadelphia after putting up just six points in their first preseason game against Washington. Meanwhile, the Panthers have been consistent on offense, scoring seven touchdowns over their first two games. The end result could come down to which team makes the fewest mistakes and takes advantage of mismatches.
Cam Newton and the other starters will be playing the entire first half, according to Ron Rivera, so the first half will be about making a statement against one of the best teams in the league. A strong early showing by the Carolina starters should paint the picture for what this squad will be capable of doing once the regular season begins.
Newton vs. Brady II may be a meaningless exhibition game, but it should offer plenty of intrigue during the first half of play.
New England 23, Carolina 21