Panthers get the message against Dolphins

Ron Rivera got what he wanted Friday night.

The second-year Carolina Panthers’ coach wanted to see his team play with spirit, intensity and focus in its second preseason game of the season, unlike how it approached the opener last Saturday night.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton even acknowledged being “lethargic” going into last Saturday’s affair, but he and the rest of the Panthers were the complete opposite Friday in dispatching the Miami Dolphins, 23-17.

In many respects, Rivera saw what he wanted before the first quarter even ended. The Panthers scored on all three possessions in the period using eight, eight and five plays to put 17 points on the board. On the other side of the ball, Carolina’s defense went three-and-out on its first two series on the field.

“I thought we came out with a lot of energy,” Rivera said. “I thought Cam really handled the offensive tempo and threw it very nicely. We get the ball three times (with Newton in the game) and score all three times. Defensively, I thought what we did the first (two) times they had it was outstanding …

“I was very pleased with the efficiency and thought the special teams covered better today.”

Newton was his usual gorgeous self, completing passes to six different receivers in the opening period, including two to tight ends and two to tailbacks. The diversity of the offense was a thing of beauty, and the execution, from the bigs up front to the receivers, is why so many folks in these parts believe a special season is on the horizon.

Full-game stats in preseason games don’t meant much, but based on what Rivera wanted to see different from last week’s game and based on where he thinks the team should be at this point of the preseason, which is just a couple of days removed from breaking training camp, the first quarter stats say a lot.

The Panthers outgained the Dolphins, 152 total yards to 23, and had 10 first downs to one. Miami’s first down came on the final play of the period.

However, this was the second game of the preseason, which means starters played into the second period, and a mixture of first- and second-team defensive players allowed Miami to march down the field to start the second quarter, scoring on a 15-play drive.

That was it for the defense, though. It buckled down and held the Dolphins until the deep-roster reserves were in the game.

The Panthers hit the road to take on the New York Jets next Sunday night and then play at Pittsburgh four days later to conclude the preseason.

Here’s a few other quick notes about Friday’s contest:

*Tailback Jonathan Stewart went to the locker room in the second quarter but later returned. Stewart, who signed a five-year contract extension earlier in the week, scored a touchdown in the first quarter.

*Wide receiver Seyi Ajirotutu dropped a pass that would have kept alive a drive in the second quarter. He is among several players fighting for a roster spot at receiver. Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and more than likely Louis Murphy have three of the spots sewn up, so Ajirotutu, who has 14 NFL receptions in two seasons, couldn’t afford that drop.  

*Second-year Panther Kealoha Pilares must also show he can run routes in addition to returning kickoffs if he’s going to make the roster. One thing is for sure, he can’t afford to fumble kickoffs like he did in the second quarter. Pilares, by the way, returned 23 kickoffs last season for 590 yards (an average of 25.7 per return) and a touchdown last season.

*Frank Alexander, a rookie defensive end from Oklahoma, had some nice moments. He even fought off a holding call to slam down Dolphins a tailback and had a sack on another play. He has impressed the coaches and teammates so far.  

*Thomas Keiser, who registered four sacks last season in a limited role, was very active against the Dolphins. He’s has a very nice camp, has drawn praise from Rivera a few times and may be in position to play a role on this team. At camp, he could always be seen asking older players questions, constantly trying to learn more.

*Newton was excellent in the three series he ran the offense. Carolina scored 17 points with him under center, as he completed eight of 11 pass attempts for 119 yards and a touchdown.

*The battle between journeyman Justin Medlock and veteran Olindo Mare grew more intense, as Medlock converted both of his field-goal attempts (from 49 and 43 yards) and Mare made his from 44 yards. Medlock is proving he can match Mare kicking extra points and field goals, and he will win the job if he can match him on kickoffs as well. Two more weeks to go for this competition, and it should be fascinating to see who wins out.