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Notebook: Thomas Brown previews Miles Sanders' Panthers debut

Miles Sanders

CHARLOTTE – The Panthers haven't seen Miles Sanders in game action yet; the new running back acquired in free agency after four years in Philadelphia didn't participate throughout the preseason.

He did practice through most of training camp though, before a groin tweak kept him out for a short while.

But Sanders is expected to be back for Week 1 against Atlanta. And with some uncertainty around the wide receiver group due to injuries, he could be in for some extra attention on offense.

Offensive coordinator Thomas Brown gushed about the Pro Bowler in Thursday's press conference, praising everything from Sanders' talent to his leadership.

"To me, just a dynamic ability," Brown said. "I think being able to have three-down capabilities, play in between the tackles, play out in space; but also, when it comes third down, protecting the quarterback, first and foremost, but also trying to find some matchups. So you get him on some man coverage looks, get him in some one-on-one opportunities. And he's a great leader for that room as well. He's been awesome."

Sanders rushed for a career-best 1,269 yards last season with the Eagles, earning his first Pro Bowl nod for the 2022 season. He was a prolific pass-catcher as a rookie, hauling in 50 receptions for 509 yards in 2019.

That's something Brown and the offensive staff may want to see more from Sanders as they trot out rookie quarterback Bryce Young, the draft's first overall draft pick, to start in his first NFL game at the Falcons on Sunday.

They'll be looking for reliability, variety, and multiple potential options.

Enter Sanders.

Brown said looking to create opportunities for the running backs (specifically mentioning Sanders and his fellow running back Chuba Hubbard) in space is opportune for a group that could be prone to injury. Running through tackles eventually wears on your body, and Brown, a former running back himself, would know all about that.

"As we know, (it's a) brutal position," Brown said. "Guys get banged up very easily. How do we utilize guys without wearing them down? Obviously, the hard part comes when you get into a game, and a guy's hot and rolling; you want to keep feeding him the ball.

"But to me, I think about Miles when it comes to touches – also Chuba – over just necessarily carries. Like not always being able to have carries in between the tackles, but how can we get them in space, find those matchups again? (And) get the ball to them as well."

– Returning to Atlanta is an especially significant Week 1 trip for kicker Eddy Piñeiro, who missed two potentially game-winning kicks en route to a Panthers overtime loss at the Falcons' Mercedes-Benz Stadium last season.

Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor said he and Piñeiro hadn't discussed it, but he emphasized that bad days happen. And it's what Piñeiro was able to do after that season – finishing the year with a 94.3 field goal percentage, making 33 of his 35 attempts, including 19 straight to finish the season.

"We could turn on golf, and somebody's having a bad day; it's just one of those days," Tabor said. "That's what happened. I think what he did after that kind of speaks to who he is. And we're just trying to build off that."

The Panthers' trio of specialists, with Piñeiro, punter Johnny Hekker, and long snapper JJ Jansen, remained intact for a second consecutive season with Tabor.

Tabor said the roles that the more veteran Hekker and Jansen play in Piñeiro's development are helpful to everyone involved.

"It's kind of like having two big brothers, really, for Eddy," Tabor said. "He's embraced that role, and they embrace it also. To be able to have those guys as sounding boards, 'Hey, I had a tough day. How do I bounce back? What did you guys do?' I'm sure they've had rough days. He takes to their advice, and it's worked out well."

– Defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero didn't see his entire starting unit on the field together in the preseason, as outside linebacker Brian Burns was held out of all three games, and multiple starters (including defensive tackle Derrick Brown) didn't play a ton either. 

But he said in Thursday's press conference that there's no frustration from that, since the offseason and camp were for setting the foundation – which there was plenty of in practice. 

"You're developing techniques, skills, and fundamentals in training camp," Evero said. "Once you get to the regular season, so much of it is game-plan specific. I feel really, really good about the foundation that we've built in the offseason and in training camp. At the end of the day, you've got to go play football. And I feel like we're in a good position to do that." 

There's also the element of surprise, Evero said, and that played into opting for more reps for backups and depth players in the preseason. 

But more than anything, there simply isn't a significant emphasis on the scheme before the season starts. They're looking to see what they have.

"We're really in the evaluation mode when we're in training camp and in the preseason games," Evero said. "I'm not that focused in on scheme. I know coach Frank (Reich) is the same way. And we're really about evaluating our players on our roster and seeing where we're good, where we need to improve. When we get to this point, we need to go win games, so that's the forefront."

View photos of the Panthers' practice on Wednesday.

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