The Carolina Panthers are next up for the Dallas Cowboys; a road date that pretty much holds the keys to the rest of the schedule. Win, and Dallas still has reasonable post-season aspirations. Lose and although it would be more improbable than impossible, it might be time to re-focus.
This week, we stay on the road (second set of back-to-back road contests in six games, with @ Atlanta @ Philly coming up soon, what the hell, Goodell?) as we travel to Carolina Panthers territory.
Before they were awarded an expansion franchise in the '90s, the Carolina's were primarily home to Washington Redskins fans. There seems to be a bit of disdain towards our organization that the fans who've switched their allegiances to continue to embrace. Just ask Tarheel Paul.
For insight into our next opponent, I looked to SB Nation's Panthers blog, Cat Scratch Reader and their Managing Editor, James Dator.
Blogging The Boys: One of the biggest problems I have with NFL coverage by a lot of national and even local media is how quarterbacks are treated/scapegoated, however you want to term it. With a focus on his decision-making as well as defensively scheming against him, give me the educated Panthers fan's assessment of where Cam Newton is right now?
Cat Scratch Reader: Cam Newton is a 23-year-old kid who's being asked to not only lead a football team, but be the savior of a franchise. He wants to be that guy, and it's not too big for him-- but there's still so much he needs to learn about being a quarterback and a leader before he can get there. I don't know how clear I need to be: He is not Vince Young. However, the majority of football fans want to see him fail for a variety of reasons, so they'll nit pick every bad game in a way other QBs aren't over-analyzed.
BTB: What's your take on the Panther's organization's strategy to monetarily invest so heavily in the run game, while the NFL is turning into more and more of a passing league?
CSR: NFL-wide it is becoming more of a passing league, but look at the teams at the top: Baltimore, San Fran, Minnesota, NYG, Houston-- all lean on their running games as a way to set up the pass, and so too the Panthers have that as their backbone. The front office in Carolina has always admired Pittsburgh, and build their organization that way (albeit less successfully). Provided the running backs are used effectively it's a non-issue, but right now they're not being used correctly. It's also important to note that the way the Williams/Stewart contracts are structured they end paying the two backs roughly what Tampa Bay is paying Vincent Jackson each year.
BTB: Ron Rivera seemed to take some flack for his end-of-game strategy against Atlanta when he punted instead of going for it on fourth down. We in Dallas are no strangers to strategic second-guessing of our head coach. What's the word on the Reign of Ron?
CSR: Rivera is getting a lot of flack because fans want to see him screaming on the sideline, and admonishing his team when things aren't going well. Most don't understand that it isn't his style. In the locker room he's very vocal with this team, but on the field he comes off looking passive-- that doesn't work wonders for fan-confidence. Ultimately he's an inexperienced coach making inexperienced coaching mistakes, but he has to reign in his coordinators if the Panthers are going to win. Right now they have too much rope, and it's hanging the team.
BTB: Let's talk the Panthers' linebacking corps. From the name recognition of Keuchly, Beason, Davis and Anderson one would expect some nice production. How are things on that front?
CSR: Jon Beason hasn't looked himself in 2012, which has been a problem. Meanwhile Luke Kuechly has been as good as advertised, and turned in the best game of his season against the Seahawks when asked to play in the middle. Carolina now have a dilemma: Go with the hot hand and announce Kuechly as your MLB, or stick with the All-Pro who is under-performing in Beason? We don't know the answer to that yet. James Anderson is a solid outside linebacker, but he's not a game changer. Meanwhile Thomas Davis is coming back from his third ACL tear, and doing the impossible. He's used sparingly, and on third down-- but every time he's on the field he makes a difference.
BTB: If you were a Panthers' opponent; give me an area to focus on, both offensively and defensively.
CSR: On offense the key to beating the Panthers is pretty simple: Go three-wide and throw. The secondary isn't good enough to account for multiple receivers, and a pass catching TE like Jason Witten. Run just enough to keep the defense honest, but other than that all Dallas need to do is keep testing the DBs.
On defense it's all about getting inside pressure on Cam Newton. He has shown a knack for escaping outside blitzes, but if someone is in his face he tends to struggle. Rob Ryan should stunt DeMarcus Ware inside to rush through the B-gap and catch Newton off guard. Do this and he tends to make bad reads.
BTB: Bonus Question: What's your final score prediction for the game?
CSR: The Panthers are as desperate and hungry as I've seen them, and with a bye-week to make adjustments I think they'll play much more sensibly and stop over-complicating things. Carolina sneaks over the line against a Dallas team minus DeMarco Murray, and I think the score will be 23-17.
Thanks again to James for giving us the inside scoop on the Panthers. Make sure you head over to Cat Scratch Reader to keep up on things from the Carolina point of view.