Coming off a heart-breaking loss to Baltimore, can the Cowboys bind their (self-inflicted) wounds and take care of business against a flawed Panthers team? To win, they'll have to take Cam Newton's Superman act and stuff it back in the phone booth where it belongs.
The Panthers' attack is headlined by Cam Newton, whose stellar play at Auburn not only provided Tiger boosters with a wonderful return on their money but also made him a Heisman Trophy winner and the first selection in the 2011 draft. Newton started his rookie season like a house on fire, displaying better downfield accuracy than he'd shown at any time in college (or heck, better than he'd shown while throwing against air at the combine!) along with a running style that combined speed and elusiveness with bowl-you-over-and-crack-your-sternum ferocity. After NFL defenses got over their lockout-addled first month, however, the going got a little tougher for Cam. He remained a devastating force as a red-zone runner, but while his passing numbers over the final twelve games (222 yards per game, 16 TDs, 12 INTs) were nothing to sneeze at they also weren't the stuff of a guy with a big red ‘S' on his chest.
Five games into the 2012 season, Newton has raised as many questions as he's answered. He's still been able to deliver some big downfield shots, but short/intermediate accuracy struggles have his completion percentage down to 58.8% and his 4TD/5INT ratio isn't knocking anyone's socks off. There are also whispers of concern in Panther-land around his attitude, and whether pre-draft concerns that he might consider himself a bit too precious for coaching could have some validity.
The upshot from the Cowboys' standpoint is that while Newton is the undeniable center of the Panthers' offense whose unique skills must be game-planned for, he's can absolutely be contained and beaten - as Carolina's 1-4 record reflects. While his arm strength needs to be respected at any time, you still want to keep him in the pocket as much as possible. He's the type of QB that I like attacking with a three- or four-man ‘mush rush' that contains him in the pocket and then picking him off with a single blitzer coming on a brief delay. Since no one but DeMarcus Ware seems to be able to muster anything other than a ‘mush rush' at this point anyway, we may be in luck!
Whether he's in or out of the pocket, the number one target Newton will be scanning for remains electric wideout Steve Smith. While Smith is showing some signs of slowing down in his age-33 season, he can still get deep and also tear up a defense if he gets the ball in his hands with room to operate. He's made a career out of out-quicking larger corners, and if Carr and Claiborne try jamming him at the line they had best not miss.
The good news is that Rob Ryan should be able to favor Smith with a lot of attention in coverage since the Panthers' other wideouts leave a lot to be desired. Brandon LaFell is a big, physical youngster who was showing some signs of putting it together in the second half of 2011 but who has done next to nothing after starting out well in 2012. He shouldn't be able to physically overpower either of the Cowboys' corners, and he doesn't have a strong route-running skill-set to fall back on. Louis Murphy has seen most of the Panthers' #3 reps, and his season stats have yet to approach what Kevin Ogletree managed in the Giants game.
Besides Smith, the biggest threat in the Carolina air attack comes from former Bears' TE Greg Olsen. Freed from the shackles of the tight end-hating Mike Martz, Olsen has developed into a real weapon on seams and deeper out routes for Newton this season. Olsen would have absolutely tormented Keith Brooking and Bradie James last season, but Lee and Carter should be much better suited to contain him.
Containing the Panthers' backs in the passing game may be tougher than corralling their non-Smith receivers. Jonathan Stewart has developed into a real weapon out of the backfield, and he should be healthy coming out of the bye week. DeAngelo Williams is less used in the passing game with Stewart's emergence, but he's also a threat on screens while #3 back Mike Tolbert actually leads the backfield in catches (as well as raw tonnage - man has been EATING in Carolina!) with ten. Any blitzes will need to be matched with appropriate coverage on the back to make sure we don't have any more Ray Rice 43-yarders popped on us.
Containing the Panthers' backs in the run game this season has been an easier task as they are averaging less than 3.7 yards per carry in aggregate. Since just about every runner not named Adrian Peterson tends to go as his blocking goes, committing a combined $80 million to Williams and Stewart shows that Carolina's front office may not have a great handle on this whole "how to allocate resources in a pass-first league" thing.
So, just how HAS that blocking been going? While Cowboys fans have had to endure some hair-pulling O-line woes this season the Panthers' current situation might make Dallas' look like a garden party. The bad news for Carolina starts with the loss of Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil to a season-ending foot injury. The Panthers' OL wasn't exactly grading the road before Kalil went down, but his loss has triggered a major re-shuffling that's highly unlikely to help matters.
Guard Geoff Hangartner is moving to center - he's been getting absolutely detonated in the run game this season, and was one of the key players in Carolina's run-game fiasco against Tampa Bay to start the season. Former right tackle Byron Bell - who basically started out as a stand-in for departed RT Jeff Otah - will be shifting to guard, while backup tackle Garry Williams will be moving to right tackle. None of these guys are shining stars in their regular spots, and it goes without saying that Rob Ryan should provide early and frequent opportunities for them to prove that they can handle stunts and blitzes as a unit. Things are at least more settled on the left side, where LT Jordan Gross is his usual solidly-above-average self and LG Amini Silatolu is at least mixing in some positives with his rookie woes.
The bottom line is that while this offense has several guys who can scare you with the ball in their hands, it's not one that has been able to do anything particularly well this season. The Cowboys need to beat up a beaten-down OL, keep plenty of attention on Steve Smith and the backs in the passing game and keep Carolina out of the short-yardage and goal-line situations where Newton's prowess as a runner plays up. If someone besides Ware can pass the Jersey Test* that will be a nice bonus, but if we focus on containment the Panthers' offense should sputter on its own.
*The Jersey Test involves approaching a member of the defensive front seven just after the game is over and asking him to correctly identify the jersey number of the quarterback they just played against for four quarters. If anyone but Ware has been passing this test lately, it's probably an indication that they read the program rather than getting close enough to see it on their own.
For more insight into our next opponent, check SB Nation's Panthers blog, Cat Scratch Reader