I’ll give it to you straight: There’s some good news, and some bad news.
Let’s rip the Band-aid off and start with the bad: Carolina’s first-team tackles had their lunch money taken by Miami’s pass rushers in the first half of Thursday night’s 27-20 victory over the Dolphins at Bank of America Stadium.
And it didn’t take long for the bullying to begin.
First, left tackle Matt Kalil gave up a pressure to Dolphins defensive end Robert Quinn on the first offensive play of the game.
Then, Kalil and fill-in second-year tackle Taylor Moton both got beat on the same play later in the quarter.
Kalil got beat worse. Or maybe Quinn was just quicker, because he got to quarterback Cam Newton before Moton’s guy, Miami defensive end Cameron Wake.
And Newton took the 7-yard loss on the sack.
Later, Quinn rolled by Kalil like a river over pebbles, sacking Newton for a 9-yard loss on Carolina’s second offensive series.
Quinn had two quarterback pressures and two sacks for 16 yards by the end of the half.
“I thought the guys harassed him and did a good job of causing some pressure,” said Dolphins head coach Adam Gase at halftime.
Newton got a clean pocket a few times in the first half, when he wasn’t replaced until the final minute. Once, he connected on a nice 12-yard ball to Torrey Smith. He also had awhile to throw to tight end Greg Olsen; but Miami defensive back Xavien Howard picked Newton off. A few times, Newton also had to check down to running back Christian McCaffrey under pressure, and on a two-point conversion attempt he took a coverage sack.
Because Moton is starting in place of an injured Daryl Williams, and will do so for the foreseeable future, Carolina’s depth at left tackle is thin and untested.
Kalil and Moton played the entire first half, even as backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke came in.
Dorian Johnson, who is a guard, replaced Kalil at left tackle in the third quarter, but backup defensive end Allen Branch blew past him and stripped Heinicke. The play ultimately was a Panthers gain because of a penalty for illegal contact, but Johnson missed a block on the following play. He also gave up a sack.
It’s the preseason, so there’s time to fix these issues before fans pull the fire alarm and run screaming out of the building.
But if they can’t get their tackles’ issues, particularly against speed-rushers, fixed, the Panthers have a problem with a home opener against Dallas looming.
“It’s something we just have to continually practice,” said Greg Van Roten, who started his second preseason game at left guard.
“I’m getting used to Matt (Kalil); Matt is getting used to me. I’m getting used to Ryan (Kalil); Ryan’s getting used to me. It’ll come together; that’s what the preseason is for. That’s what we practice for. That’s something we will work on, and we are going to get it right.
“You definitely want to have it all figured out before the games start to count. We’ll get it right.”
Yes, good news was promised. And there certainly was good news, and promise.
On the interior of the line, the Panthers looked excellent. Van Roten, aided by fullback Alex Armah and rookie tight end Ian Thomas, opened a fat hole for McCaffrey in the first quarter.
Van Roten pulled to the right side, while Armah sealed the edge and Thomas sealed the inside. And McCaffrey blew through the gap nearly untouched for a 71-yard touchdown, a career-long rush.
“It’s probably the best feeling,” said Van Roten. “One, you know it’s going to be a quick drive because nobody is going to catch him. So you’re off the field, so you get to conserve some energy. And two, it’s good to know that everyone had a good block on the play, and that’s what is supposed to happen when everyone does their job.”
Van Roten also helped open a hole for McCaffrey later in the quarter for a 9-yard gain. For all his issues in pass protection, Johnson had a solid run-blocking outing.
When veteran center Ryan Kalil was spelled, Van Roten shifted to center and rookie Brendan Mahon came in at left guard and had a solid outing, aside from a false-start penalty on fourth-and-1 in the third quarter. Mahon left the game in the fourth quarter with a calf injury, and did not return.
But what are the Panthers going to do, inside-run the ball the entire game? Send Armah, who stood up Wake on his block for McCaffrey, in at left tackle?
(That was a joke, everybody stay calm.)
There are high expectations on Newton this year to improve his accuracy — he said a goal of his is to consistently be in the 65-percent completion range. He has the receivers, tight ends and pass-catching running backs to make some really special things happen on offense.
But he can’t even begin do that without a consistently clean pocket. And a big part of that, at least exaggeratedly so on Friday night, is finding consistency in his tackles.