As impressive as the Panthers' offense was in 2011, they might have shattered some records had they been able to play a couple of games against their own defense. Things got ugly early for the Carolina defensive unit last season, and they pretty much stayed that way. The Panthers got some injured veterans back while also spending some high draft choices and free agent dollars to bolster the defense...and things are still pretty ugly.
Defensive disasters tend to start up front, and Carolina is no exception. A wave of injuries at defensive tackle last season meant that the middle of the Panthers' D barely offered blocking sled-caliber resistance to opposing guards. Veteran tackle Ron Edwards has come back from a tricep injury and former Raven Dwan Edwards has been his most frequent running buddy in the middle this season. While they haven't been as comically inept as last season's Sione Pouha/Terrell McClain tandem, they haven't been real sharp either. Their inability to offer much resistance up the gut has played a big role in Carolina's advanced-stat woes - they rank 30th in FootballOutsiders' Stuffs stat (stopping a run at or behind the line) and 29th in Power situations (short-yardage and goal line runs). Nearly 67% of Dallas' interior linemen played really well against the Ravens (hi, MacKenzy!) and this will be a great chance to keep building a streak of solid play.
The Panthers' ends are somewhat more accomplished. Charles Johnson is looking like he wants to live up to the big contract he signed last off-season, and has started out with four sacks and a combined 19 hits/hurries through five games. Tyron Smith's play has been trending up in the last few weeks* after a tough start, and he'll need to bring his A game to keep Johnson under control. On the other side, Greg Hardy is more of an edge-setter in the run game than a pass rush threat. If Doug Free actually turned over a new leaf against the Ravens last week, he should be able to keep Hardy out of the backfield. If the pride-free play that hallmarked Free's first four games returns, then it's anybody's guess.
Injuries have struck at Carolina's back seven, and they look to be without MLB Jon Beason for this week's contest. Rookie LB Luke Kuechly has shifted to the middle to fill the breach, but he's finding that it's harder to deploy those gap-shooting run game instincts when both your DTs are getting forklifted into your lap on every down. SLB James Anderson has been so-so against the run and gets beat with regularity in the pass game. The bright spot has been WLB Thomas Davis, who has come back from an unprecedented THREE ACL tears on the same knee. Just being on the field is a victory for Davis, but he's been very active against the run while providing solid coverage on opposing backs and tight ends.
In the Preseason Guide, I opined that Carolina corners Chris Gamble and Captain Munnerlyn should have a 70's cop show called Gamble and the Captain - Gamble would be the steady, by-the-book veteran who gets results, while the Captain would be the loose cannon who plays by his own rules. In this week's episode Gamble may be out with a shoulder injury (what they call a ‘flesh wound' in those old cop shows), which could be bad news for Carolina since he's the only guy in their secondary who can cover anyone. If Munnerlyn and rookie Josh Norman are manning the starting corner spots with dime back Josh Thomas forced into a nickel role, the Dallas passing game should have plenty of room to operate.
If the Gamble and the Captain show had a running bit where they would call for backup that never arrived, it would be a pretty good approximation of Carolina's safety play. Any time someone got past the Panthers' front seven or corners last season (and there were a lot of these times) they were a decent bet to make it to the end zone as shoddy help coverage and worse tackling were often in evidence. Carolina brought in strong safety Haruki Nakamura from Baltimore to help put out the fire, but instead he's basically run around the secondary with a can of gasoline tossing lit matches left and right. Nakamura is joined by Charles Godfrey, who may well be the worst-tackling safety in the league.
It's pretty simple - this is not a good defense. Their DE's can make some plays in the backfield and Davis can be a weapon in coverage and on blitzes, but they've been beaten up by most offenses they've faced. In a bizarre alternate reality, where cars fly and cats talk and Dallas doesn't eviscerate itself with mindless pre-snap fiascoes every single #*$^ week, it would be easy to imagine Dallas doing the same.
The Bottom Line
The Ravens aren't a world-beating team, but they were 4-1 for a reason. Dallas had the Ravens beat for most of that game, but we decided to beat ourselves instead. The Panthers aren't a horrendous team, but they're 1-4 for a reason. If Dallas avoids a Baltimore hangover and keeps the penalties to a manageable 9-70 or so, they should be able close the deal this week and get back to .500.
Dallas 31, Carolina 20
*Except for penalties - but since penalties bother literally no one in the Cowboys' coaching staff or front office, why should they bother us?
For more insight into our next opponent, check SB Nation's Panthers blog, Cat Scratch Reader