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Cowboys - Panthers Preview

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The Panthers worst loss this year came against the Bears. In that game Chicago provided the blueprint for a Dallas win Saturday. It allowed Steve Smith to go crazy, as he caught 14 passes for 169 yards. But they kept him from the highlight play. He had no receptions behind the defense; he did not catch a quick hitch and then race 60 yards for a score. Chicago let him have 10 and 12 yards hooks and outs and then tackled him.

The Bears smothered everything else. No other Carolina receiver had more than 20 yards. DeShaun Foster was limited to 41 yards on the ground. Jake Delhomme was sacked eight times. When he got frustrated, he threw two crippling interceptions.

On the offensive side of the ball, Chicago ran stubbornly, if not effectively. Thomas Jones averaged 3.5 yards per carry, a familiar number to Dallas fans. But Chicago gave it to him 25 times, helping them win the time of possession battle. Kyle Orton threw for only 136 yards, but made only one mistake, beating Delhomme in picks 2 to 1.

What Chicago exposed, more than anything else, is that the '05 Panthers, in many ways, resemble the '05 Cowboys. Their offensive tackles have trouble protecting against strong rushers. Their much ballyhooed power running game has sputtered all year, with neither Stephen Davis nor Deshaun Foster averaging more than 4.0 yards per carry. Their passing game is Steve Smith and nothing else: he's got over 1,400 yards receiving and is more than 800 yards ahead of Carolina's second rated receiver.

John Fox has won games the way that Bill Parcells was winning them in the middle of the season. Lean on your defense, run the ball relentlessly, even if the opponent is stopping you much of the time. Take some well-chosen shots at Smith. Win the turnover and time of possession battles and grind out close, 20 to 14 or 20 to 17 wins.

Dallas can win this game. Terence Newman, with a little help, can contain Smith in the same way Chicago did. He can stop 40 to 60 yard breakouts. The long pass to Eddie Kennison was the only touchdown caught behind him this year and that was the safety's fault.

The bigger question is the front seven. Why have they regressed so much of late? They've suffered no major injuries, in the way the secondary has. Dat Nguyen's loss has been felt, but it has been weeks since he was healthy.

This game will turn on their pride and on d-line coach Kacey Rogers' rotation. Dallas needs Scott Fujita, Demarcus Ware and Kevin Burnett to play with abandon against the run. Rogers also needs to see that Greg Ellis is on the field as much as possible on passing downs. His reps have declined recently, especially on passing downs, but he's been the spark for the pass rush when he's been in.

If Dallas can put Carolina in second and third and long sitations and get Ellis, Chris Canty, Ware and LaRoi Glover on the field in those situations, they can pressure Delhomme. Watch first down carefully. The Panthers like to hammer it on first down too. If Foster can be held to two to three yard gains, this game will be available. If he starts ripping off seven, eight and nine yard gains on toss plays, we're looking at another long afternoon.

Dallas will have to win those run-down matchups because the offense won't have the luxury of a Kansas City-style game plan. The Panthers defense is much closer to the Redskins in philosophy and performance, which means Dallas will need to protect Drew Bledsoe as much as possible. Carolina's ends are the best Dallas has faced since the Giants game, and we know what Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan did. In fact, we know what lesser ends like Philip Daniels can do if Dallas leaves its tackles in solo protection schemes. If Torrin Tucker and Rob Petitti are left alone against Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker, this game will be over by halftime.

Look for Dallas to slam the ball inside, no matter how erratic and ugly the results might be. The line does rip open holes from time to time. And Carolina lacks some ballast in the middle, since DT Kris Benson was lost early in the season to a leg injury.

If Bledsoe can get some time, he can make some throws downfield. The Panthers weakness is its secondary, especially right corner Chris Gamble. Dallas will have matchup advantages and should get receivers open. The bigger question is whether Bledsoe will have to time to locate them.

If the game plan goes to form the kickers will play a much more important role this week, especially Mat McBriar. His weak punts contributed to Dallas last first half collapse, giving the Redskins very short fields. Dallas needs him to return to form, since field position will be criticial if Dallas hopes to win.

Prediction:
A win over Carolina is possible. As banged up as they are, Dallas nevertheless has the talent on the field to win the game. The bigger question is whether a win is probable? In order for the plan to work, the OLBs, the secondary, McBriar, the offensive line and Bledsoe will all have to work at a high level.

I can see, in fact I expect to see, the team rebound from last week's humiliation. I expect to see desperation and heart. The kids have been in 13 of their 14 games, something I didn't expect and I imagine few others expected at the beginning of the year. However, I also expect to see mistakes. All the units I named have been error prone and somewhere along the line, I think more penalties or turnovers will pop up to plague them.

I hate writing this, but I see another hard-fought game that comes up short.

Carolina 17, Dallas 13