CHARLOTTE — If the Miami Dolphins are going to do the unexpected, and make the NFL playoffs for a second consecutive season, this is the type of game they have to find a way to win.
Frankly, Miami isn’t going to be favored to win many games in the second half of the season. So they’ll need to do things they haven’t done consistently.
Less missed tackles. Fewer dropped interceptions. More sacks.
Fewer offensive line penalties and missed blocks. More open routes by receivers.
Oh, that’s about it.
Oh, and Jay Cutler sort of has to continue to play lights out.
Anyhow, here are five fins facing tremendous tension under the bright lights against the Carolina Panthers:
• Jermon Bushrod, guard — We could put Ted Larsen in here, too, as he’ll start his first game as a guard for the Miami Dolphins, returning from a biceps injury. What’s so hard about finding good guards! What’s so hard about playing guard? OK, OK, that’s an oversimplification. But the Panthers happen to have a defensive tackle named Kawann Short (#99) who is one of the most underrated superstars in the NFL. Think Adam Gase is impressed? “We’re lucky enough to have one of the best guys in the league playing defensive tackle (Ndamukong Suh) and I think they’ve got one of the best guys in the league,” Gase said. “There’s probably like two or three of these guys that exist in the world.”
• Jesse Davis, right tackle — Davis wasn’t supposed to be in this spot. Davis can only hope that his night doesn’t go the way it did for Cowboys tackle Chaz Green did on Sunday (five sacks allowed). On the bright side, Davis feels more comfortable at tackle than he does at guard. On the downside, he’s raw and essentially a project. One Dolphins coach half (joked?) he wishes Davis had time to sneak into a “JV” game at tackle on Saturday, in order to be better prepared. Defensive end Mario Addison is a solid player for the Panthers. And if Julius Peppers gets some reps over Davis, it’s reason to pause and worry. Folks are down on Ja’Wuan James. OK, well, we’ll all see if Miami misses him.
• Kenyan Drake, running back — This is supposed to be a running back by committee, but Damien Williams hasn’t felt well all week. And so Drake may be in line for a career-high in touches. It’s not going to be easy to get the ball to Drake and Williams like Miami did last week (12 total catches). First of all, Carolina is ready for it. Second of all, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are outstanding Panthers linebackers. Drake must protect the football, block well and make a few explosion plays against the NFL’s best defense.
• Lawrence Timmons, linebacker — Who’s the best man to tackle Panthers running back, we mean, quarterback, Cam Newton? We say Timmons. He’s fast. He’s physical. He’s generally a sure tackler. In the last few games, Timmons, Kiko Alonso and Rey Maualuga have missed a few more tackles than they did early in the season. But this is why Miami bulked up at linebacker. Last year it was all about speed. This year, it’s about speed and power. This is a great opportunity for Timmons to recapture the emotion and passion he displayed early in the season. Timmons and Alonso will also be asked to chase Christian McCaffrey on at least a few key plays.
• T.J. McDonald, safety — This is McDonald’s first game as a Dolphin and it’s important he not try to do too much. McDonald can be a destructive hitter, but he can’t make a big miss on a McCaffrey or Cam Newton (ooh, that could be a fun collision) or Devin Funchess (same) and see one of those Panthers going the distance. It will be fascinating to see how defensive coordinator Matt Burke attempts to mesh McDonald and Pro Bowler Reshad Jones, two explosive, hard-hitting, dynamic athletes.
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