Carolina Panthers

Panthers at Titans, 5 things to watch: How many snaps will Kelvin Benjamin play?

Kelvin Benjamin (13) had one catch in the team’s exhibition opener, and he should see his playing time increase this week as he continues his comeback from an ACL tear.
Kelvin Benjamin (13) had one catch in the team’s exhibition opener, and he should see his playing time increase this week as he continues his comeback from an ACL tear. Getty Images

We know things are a little different when the Carolina Panthers visit Nashville.

Tennessee mothers, cover your children’s eyes in case Cam Newton gets in the end zone again!

The Carolina Panthers revisit Nissan Stadium where they won in last year’s regular-season contest against the Tennessee Titans saw the dab take on international life. In Carolina’s second exhibition of the preseason – one that oddly takes place mid-afternoon Saturday – the Panthers will face a run-heavy Titans offense looking to establish itself.

On the other side of the ball, Cam Newton and the rest of the first-team offense should play no more than three series as the team will gear up for a full half the following week at home against New England.

So other than the possible celebratory gyrations, here are five things to watch in Saturday’s exhibition.

1. Kelvin Benjamin’s snap count

Carolina’s No. 1 receiver is still working himself back into game shape, though he looked much better on the practice field Thursday with a day of rest than he did during the dog days of training camp in Spartanburg.

Benjamin played eight of the first team’s 13 snaps in last week’s exhibition against Baltimore. He had one catch for 5 yards, and he was just happy to get back on the field in a game.

It has been a full year since Benjamin tore his ACL, and the Panthers have been working him back very cautiously. He should get 15 to 20 snaps against the Titans before getting nearly 30 against the Patriots the following week.

What the Panthers would love to see is Benjamin get a couple of catches in the first quarter and come out of the game having broken a sweat.

2. The offensive tackle rotation

The past week has reemphasized what we already knew: Daryl Williams shouldn’t be on the left side.

He allowed a strip sack on his first play at left tackle last week against Baltimore, and days later he admitted he’s far more comfortable on the right than the left.

But the Panthers don’t have a decent backup option at left tackle behind Michael Oher. David Foucault is in his third year of what seemed like, at most, a two-year experiment, and it hasn’t gone well this preseason.

The Panthers got reinforcements this week when they signed former East Carolina standout Willie Smith to a one-year deal. He has played both tackle positions and just needs to show he’s more reliable than Foucault.

Don’t get too worked up if Smith misses a blitz or misunderstands a call – he has only had one practice with the team. In his first exhibition with the Panthers, Smith needs to show he can do the basics.

3. When will we see Sanchez?

Rookie cornerback Zack Sanchez spent most of training camp working with the first- and second-team defenses, but he didn’t get into the exhibition against Baltimore until the second half, with the third-team defense.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said a lot of that had to do with what the Ravens’ offense was doing and how Carolina wanted to match it. Well, Sanchez may have to wait again Saturday.

Since Tennessee figures to be a run-first offense this season, the Panthers will want more bulk to defend against it. Shaq Thompson will see a decent chunk of time at outside linebacker, and next up will likely be Colin Jones.

Jones plays the “buffalo” nickel position for Carolina, one that specializes in stopping the run. At 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, Sanchez is more of a cover nickel who’s still learning how to tackle bigger, stronger receivers and backs in the NFL.

4. Who steps up at tight end?

The top two options at tight end won’t play Saturday. Greg Olsen is dealing with back spasms and Ed Dickson has had a groin injury that has kept him out for nearly two weeks.

Expect a healthy dose of Scott Simonson on the first-team offense. Simonson spent all of last season in Carolina’s system, and he comes out of training camp as the clear No. 3 tight end.

That’s where things get murky. Seventh-round draft pick Beau Sandland appears to be the No. 4 tight end, though he seems to be neck-and-neck with undrafted rookie Braxton Deaver as far as pass-catching goes.

Carolina has been using Sandland in the backfield as a hybrid fullback, which the Panthers need with no fullback behind Mike Tolbert.

Marcus Lucas could use a good showing in this exhibition and the next to avoid roster cuts. And former Australian Rules Football player Eric Wallace has had trouble even holding on to passes in his time with the team.

5. Panthers will keep the defensive tackles fresh

With the Titans’ emphasis on running the ball, Carolina will have to be cognizant of its interior defensive line.

The Panthers’ top four defensive tackles are set. Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short are the Week 1 starters. First-round pick Vernon Butler is Short’s backup and Paul Soliai will be the backup nose tackle.

But Carolina could keep a fifth defensive tackle, and that’s where it gets interesting. Kyle Love remains in that No. 5 slot, but he’s in the concussion protocol and it’s unclear how much time he will miss.

Eric Crume set the tone against Baltimore with a strip sack and fumble recovery, and he was consistently getting into the backfield before that. Another head-turning performance with a turnover could lead to some serious competition.

Jonathan Jones: 704-358-5323, @jjones9

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