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Five Players That Will Decide Dolphins vs. Panthers

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Two teams, seemingly headed in different directions, square off Monday night in what will be the Dolphins’ third consecutive prime time game

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

After back-to-back losses, the Miami Dolphins play their third-straight prime time game Monday night against the 6-3 Carolina Panthers.

The 24 points scored last week against Oakland was Miami’s second-most of the year but it wasn’t enough as the Dolphins are now 4-4 on the season and third place in the AFC East.

Miami’s offense responded fairly well in its first game without Jay Ajayi, but it’s hard to say that the elimination of Ajayi didn’t hurt the offense as Kenyan Drake had a costly red-zone fumble that resulted in points for Oakland.

There were plenty of “what ifs” to go around in last week’s loss to the Raiders, but at the end of the day the game resulted in a loss against a team that Miami may be competing with for a wild card spot if the Dolphins can string a few wins together over the next couple weeks.

The Panthers are currently opposite the Dolphins the last couple of weeks as winners of their last two games against the Buccaneers and Falcons, respectively.

Currently a half game behind New Orleans for first place in the NFC South, Carolina will be giving its full attention to Miami this week as the Panthers go into their bye week after Monday night’s clash against the Dolphins.

In what’s likely to be a struggle for both teams offensively, as both teams rank in the top 10 in yards allowed per game, here’s a look at five players that’ll play a key role in determining Monday night’s outcome.

Matt Haack

For as much heat the Dolphins’ offense receives for their struggles this season, Haack and his punting performance deserves some notoriety as well.

Several punts are to be expected against Carolina’s top-ranked defense so Haack will play a key role in the field position battle in what has the makeup of a low-scoring game.

Haack and the Dolphins have the fifth-most punts in the NFL – and keep in mind – Miami has played a game less than several teams due to the postponement of the opening week matchup against Tampa Bay.

Despite his 46 punts in 2017, Haack is averaging 45.2 yards per punt, which is just 19th-best in the NFL, while he has pinned just 13 of his punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

Kiko Alonso

Just a week removed from being dominated by Oakland’s Jared Cook, Alonso will be one of the key players charged with the task of guarding the tight end on an opposing team who’s quarterback historically loves targeting his primary option at the position.

Carolina is now led by Ed Dickson at tight end since Greg Olsen went down with a foot injury earlier this year. Dickson has been held in check this season outside his five-catch, 175-yard performance against the Lions as he’s averaged just 19.5 yards per game since his week-five breakout.

Dickson and Carolina’s remaining pass catchers who aren’t primarily covered by cornerbacks shouldn’t be taken lightly, however, as it’s not like Cook was dominating defenses before he shred Miami for eight catches for 126 yards last Sunday night.

Alonso may also be called upon to help contain rookie Christian McCaffrey who is more of a threat as a pass catcher than a between-the-tackles running back as he leads the Panthers with 54 receptions while his 72 targets are tied for 12th-most in the NFL, regardless of position.

T.J. McDonald

While whomever Miami decides to go with at right tackle will play a large role in protecting Jay Cutler and ultimately deciding how successful the Dolphins’ offense is on Monday night, McDonald is a player to be on the lookout for this week as he makes his regular-season debut.

Fresh off his eight-game suspension to begin the season, McDonald’s return comes at a great time for Miami’s secondary as Nate Allen was injured two weeks ago forcing him to miss last week’s game against Oakland.

The front office is also intrigued by what they’ve seen from McDonald back in the offseason as they rewarded him with a four-year, $24 million extension despite him never playing a meaningful down for the Dolphins.

Luke Kuechly

The unquestioned leader of the Panther’s defense, Kuechly has been one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL since being selected in the first round, one pick behind Ryan Tannehill, back in 2012.

A force against the run recording over 100 tackles in each season in the NFL, Kuechly is also one of the most intelligent pre-snap linebackers in the league, which helps him diagnose plays to get teammates in the right position and has also led to him recording 14 career interceptions.

Miami will likely struggle to find running lanes against Kuechly and the Panthers defense that allows just 78.4 rushing yards per game so the Dolphins’ offense may rely once again on their running backs to serve as pass catchers like they did last Sunday night.

Devin Funchess

Carolina has played one game so far without its number one wide receiver heading into the 2017 season in Kelvin Benjamin and it’s just a matter of time until Funchess is asked to take on a bigger role in the Panthers’ offense and fill the void that was created once Benjamin was traded.

Funchess, who leads the team with three touchdown receptions, has just 38 catches for 443 yards this season as his 11.7 yards per catch is much lower than the Panthers would hope considering his 6’4” 225-pound frame.

Still without a single 100-yard performance this year, Funchess will likely be given a few opportunities to make plays downfield against Miami’s starting cornerbacks who have each been on the wrong side of chunk-yardage plays resulting in touchdowns for opposing teams this season.

If this game is low scoring and goes down to the wire as one would think considering the quality of both team’s defenses, a long touchdown on a blown coverage could determine who ultimately ends up with the victory Monday night.