Game Preview: Panthers at Cowboys

Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WSPA) – The Panthers vs. Cowboys game is previewed ahead of Sunday’s showdown in Arlington, Texas.

This is part of a season-long preview series where we’ll break down both teams ahead of the matchup and finish with some ‘keys of the game’ for the Panthers.

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Dallas Cowboys

After dropping the season-opener to Tampa Bay the Dallas Cowboys have rattled off back-to-back wins against the Chargers and Eagles, respectively. Coming off of a dismal 2020 campaign, the team looks a lot better and much of that improvement can be credited to the return of quarterback Dak Prescott. In three games Prescott is completing, on average, 77.5% of his passes with six touchdowns and two interceptions. And he’s been doing damage from the pocket a lot more this year than in the past, displaying a lot of poise in the face of a pass rush. That’s been a vital part to the team’s success early on, especially on key situational downs. Dallas is converting over 53% of it’s third downs, good for fourth in the league.

ARLINGTON, TEXAS – SEPTEMBER 27: Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys is tackled by Josh Sweat #94 and Alex Singleton #49 of the Philadelphia Eagles during the second half at AT&T Stadium on September 27, 2021 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Of course, they also deploy a talented array of skill position players. We’ll start with the backfield that features Ezekiel Elliot, who’s been quite efficient although has been utilized more sparingly than in seasons past as his backup Tony Pollard has seen a good portion of snaps. It’s important to note, though, that “Zeke” is still very much the primary back. He’s been on the field for nearly three quarters of the team’s offensive snaps. Pollard is seeing just over 30% as he’ll spell Elliot for a driver here and there or even just for a few downs. This has helped keep Elliot more fresh than usual and he’s been pretty effective outside of an underwhelming performance in the opener. He has three touchdowns the past two weeks, and is getting more involved in the passing game as well. His pedigree is there, and he’s still capable of producing the burst that contributed to some big plays earlier in his career. Pollard has nearly 250 total yards this season, including a 100-yard performance against LA, and also has eight catches. The Panthers will need to account for a multitude of scenarios regardless of who lines up in the backfield on Sunday. And it appears that with the increased inclusion of Pollard, the Cowboys will continue to get the best out of both of its players in that area. They’ll be running behind an offensive line that includes tackle Tyron Smith and guard Zack Martin, two of the best at their position in the league.

The Cowboys have a wealth of talent in the receiving corps, highlighted by Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb. Basically one of those two is bound to have a big game on any given week, it’s more about determining which one, if not both. Cooper exploded in the first game of the season to the tune of 13 catches for 139 yards and two score, but has been held in check the last two games with fewer than 30 yards in each contest. Lamb had a big opener as well, but has contributed 11 more catches for 145 yards in the games since. He’s been a primary third-down target for Prescott early this year. Both are big targets that have big-play potential. Not to mention other contributors such as Cedric Wilson, who’s been a slot fill-in for the injured Michael Gallup. C.J. Henderson got to town just in time to face this talented group. As for the tight ends, they have two really solid options in Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin. Schultz has seen more targets through three games and looks to be the top option at the position, but the Cowboys often deploy both at the same time. Schultz just ripped through the Philadelphia defense for two touchdowns Monday night.

A defense that has struggled in recent years is a lot better as well. The addition of linebacker Micah Parsons, a top-ten pick, certainly helps along with the return of Leighton Vander Esch. At 6’2″, 245 pounds, Parsons exhibits a rare combination of strength and speed at the position. He routinely runs down backs sideline to sideline, while also showing impressive coverage ability for a rookie. And they often like to have him rush off the edge, something that’s paid dividends so far as he leads the team in quarterback hits with six. And he has 1.5 sacks to go along with two pass deflections as well. He’s a guy that Sam Darnold and the offensive line will need to keep tabs on at all times. Vander Esch has been plagued by injury throughout his career, but has settled in to a more traditional linebacker role rather than an edge rusher and seems to fit that role well. In the middle is Jaylon Smith, who is another all-around talent at the position. They have one of the better linebacker corps in the league when fully healthy and it’s definitely their strength on that side of the ball. The Panthers have also been dominant against the run allowing just 2.6 yards per attempt and only 135 yards through three games. Randy Gregory has been a force along the line, but hasn’t participated in practice this week due to a knee injury. His absence would unquestionably impact the ground game. The secondary is improving at a rapid pace, though. And the primary guy on that back end has been Trevon Diggs so far. He already has three interceptions this season including a pick six last week against Philadelphia. He leads the team with six pass deflections as well.

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers cruised past the Houston Texans last Thursday en route to a 3-0 start. Included in the win were two rushing touchdowns by Sam Darnold, bringing his season total to three. And he’s done a good job of taking care of the football, taking what the defense gives him, and extending drives. There have a been a couple head-scratchers, no doubt, but the good is heavily outweighing the bad thus far. He appears to be growing more comfortable in the Joe Brady/Matt Rhule scheme and has developed a good rapport with D.J. Moore. Moore has been fantastic in the early going and leads the team with 22 catches for 285 yards and a score. He’s become Mr. Reliable for Darnold and is a stable force in the receiver room. Robby Anderson has been held in check for the most part, but is always one play away from changing the temperature of a game. Another big play is just around the corner.

Chuba Hubbard has another chance to step up in place of the injured Christian McCaffrey as Hubbard now prepares for his first NFL start. He performed well filling in when McCaffrey went down versus Houston, logging 52 yards on 11 carries while hauling in three passes for 27 yards. His workload will certainly increase this week. And you’re likely to see a healthy dose of Royce Freeman as well to spell Hubbard.

HOUSTON, TEXAS – SEPTEMBER 23: Chuba Hubbard #30 of the Carolina Panthers gets pushed out of bounds by Vernon Hargreaves III #26 of the Houston Texans just short of the goal line at NRG Stadium on September 23, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

Defensively, they remain fairly healthy going into this week outside of the tough loss in the secondary with Jaycee Horn going down last week. But the recent acquisition of C.J. Henderson, a 2019 first-round selection by the Jaguars, helps cushion the blow. Henderson will step into the starting lineup immediately and has a great test in the Cowboys’ weapons for his Panther debut. The secondary has been spectacular. That’s in part due to the excellent pass rush they’ve been able to put forth, but also the corners and safeties playing smart, physical football. Carolina is yielding just 4.3 net yards per passing attempt, which is tops in the league. As for that pass rush, the Panthers continue to pace the NFL in sacks, now with 14 on the season. Hassan Reddick and Brian Burns are as formidable an edge duo as there is, and they’ll be relied upon to get some pressure once again this week.

Keys to the game

Shut down the run: This is in no way suggesting the Panthers can disregard the pass, but limiting Elliot’s impact on the game, particularly on the ground, will go a long way to securing victory. Since Elliot joined the league in 2016 the Cowboys are 16-18 when he’s held to fewer than 100 yards. When he eclipses the century mark, they’re 24-4. So making Dallas one-dimensional should be a priority heading into this week as the Cowboys passing attack, as good as it’s been, has struggled to win games single-handedly. When Dak attempts 35 or more passes the Cowboys are 10-17. And since the start of 2019, they’re 3-10 in such games (0-1 this season).

Score early: When going up against one of the best offenses in the NFL, it’s best to start off strong. Carolina could benefit greatly from getting on the scoreboard on the opening drive to set the tone on the road. And they’ll be applying instant pressure on Dallas. This is a team you don’t want to get comfortable, because as we saw this past week against the Eagles, the Cowboys play well with a lead. Don’t let them turn to Zeke and Pollard in the second half.

Win the turnover battle: Dallas’ offense is really good; it doesn’t need the benefit of a short field. Avoiding turnovers is going to be absolutely paramount to a successful outing for the Panthers. Not to mention they’re playing against a Cowboys defense that leads the NFL in takeaways (8). Protecting the ball not only helps Carolina win the field position battle, but also keeps the Cowboys offense on the sidelines. Win-win.

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