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Panthers Notes

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Some assorted observations while I wait for the combination of too much roast and tryptophan to wear off:

Flukey but deserved
The did-they-or-didn't-they-block the kick questions are for the Panthers fans to argue. Regardless, Dallas outplayed the Panthers yesterday. The Cowboys won time of posession handily. They gashed Carolina's rush defense for over 200 yards. They stopped the Panthers running game and stopped Steve Smith cold. That didn' t mean the Cowboys were without fault, but they wanted this one more.

He actually bumped two refs
Smith didn't give himself much of an alibi on his ejection play. In real time, it was a play that should make the next edition of NFL Bloopers, if they still make such things. The Panthers are in third and 6 at the Cowboys 44. Carolina goes to an empty backfield with four wide and a tight end. Jake Delhomme takes a five step drop and has his arm hit by Demarcus Ware as he looks for receiver. The ball pops free and rolls towards the sideline long the midfield stripe.

Smith, who has been running a shallow cross left to right, runs back and beats the Dallas linemen to the ball on the near sideline. He sprints back across the field and begins to pick up blockers. For an instant, it appears he's going to run in one huge circle, going past the left slot where he started to gain a crazy first down.

Terence Newman comes off his man and tackles Smith two yards short of the first down. Newman wraps him high, around Smith's helmet, but does not grab his facemask. Newman puts some mustard on the end of the tackle, twisting Smith down by his head. Smith jumps up and grabs the official, insisting on a personal foul penalty. He gets one -- on himself. Smith runs towards midfield and away from a Dallas sideline cheering his being flagged and then bumps into the referee while arguing about his mistreatment from the first ref.

When the refs huddled, I'll bet it was to determine which one got to throw Smith out of the game.

You won, but you still need to fix the problem, Bill
Julius Peppers claims he blocked Billy Cundiff's last attempt with his rib cage. The referees said the replay was inconclusive, but on first viewing, it looked to me like the ball grazed his side. Whatever the case, Peppers found two holes in the Cowboys defense -- right up the middle.

At the end of the first half, he stepped through the center/guard gap to the left of snapper J.P. Ladoceur and blocked Cundiff's kick. At the end of the game he went to the right of Ladoceur, stepping past a frozen LarryAllen. It's a wonder Peppers didn't swallow up Cundiff and the ball, since he broke through so cleanly.

The guards to each side seemed to dive down, allowing an agile linemen like Peppers, who played college basketball, to leapfrog over them. All of Cundiff's kicks looked low yesterday, but I can't fault him for the first block. Nobody should come directly through your line that easily.

The wrinkle
Carolina could never solve the Cowboys bunch formation package, which it used in third and lone formations. Dallas would put their tight end on one side of the formation, usually on the right to help Rob Petitti. It would then bunch Terry Glenn, Patrick Crayton and Keyshawn Johnson together on the left. Dallas spead the receivers about eight to ten yards wide of the left tackle, which is more than most teams will spead the bunch. Crayton would run deep clearing out the Carolina safeties and Johnson and Glenn would take turns catching intermediate passes beneath him.

Look ma, no thumbs
The first big play from bunch came in the second quarter with Dallas trailing 10-7. Glenn caught a 19 yard pass from Bledsoe on a third and six. When he punched out to stiff arm Panthers' safety Marlon McCree, Glenn dislocated his right thumb on McCree's shoulder pads. He left the game to have the thumb reset and wrapped. Watch tape of the second half and you'll see Glenn bobbling nearly every other pass that came his way. He stopped the game- winning pass with his bad hand, brought it into his body with both hands and kicked both toes in bounds. Glenn was in tears at the end of the game. I'm sure they were caused as much by pain as they were by joy.

Playing with fire at safety
The Cowboys broke camp with only two safeties on their roster. They've gone the distance with only three, adding Willie Pile after he was cut by the Chiefs. Those shallow numbers hurt them yesterday. Keith Davis was burned when he let the ancient Ricky Proehl rumble past him for a 69 yard reception on the Panthers second possession of the day. Davis got caught looking into the backfield and failed to keep deep contain. Roy Williams was victimized by a nice Delhomme pump fake on Carolina's next possession. The QB looked left and feigned a quick out to Steve Smith. The pump fake froze both Cowboys safeties and let the Panthers flanker run a post behind him for a touchdown.

When Williams injured his ankle after intercepting a Delhomme pass early in the fourth quarter, Dallas was down to Pile and Davis. Proehl beat Pile on an out and up at the 2:23 mark to put Carolina ahead 20 to 17.

We've all known safety is a position of need for '06. Carolina reminded everyone in the most rude way.

Shut up about Merriman, okay
Demarcus Ware said little after the game, but I'm sure he was thinking this after a week of having his selection questioned. Ware, like the rest of the Cowboys, struggled in Washington, while Shawne Merriman, the linebacker selected immediately after Ware in the April draft, led the Chargers' rush in their upset of previously undefeated Indianapolis. One local scribe said this week that Dallas had made the wrong choice. Ware turned in his best performance of the season Saturday, with nine tackles, three sacks and three fumbles caused. Carolina was fortunate to recover two of them. The third, which Greg Ellis recovered, stopped a late first half Panthers drive and helped set up Cundiff's blocked attempt.

Welcome back, Mr. Jones
Julius Jones could not have regained form at a better time, gaining 194 yards. It's clear that Jones is finally healthy. On at least three occassions he made stop-and-go moves in the backfield, waving past blitzing runners and making a big gain. He hasn't shown this trick since the 49ers' win, suggesting that the high ankle sprain he suffered two weeks later against the Eagles has finally healed.

Jones also got a lot of help from his line, especially the interior three of Larry Allen, Al Johnson and Andre Gurode. Watch Jones' big runs and you'll see the three of them working in unison to create enormous holes. On Jones first big run, a 19 yard first quarter scamper, Allen and Johnson cross blocked; Allen blocked down in the nose tackle angled in on Johnson and Johnson pulled around with fullback Lousaka Polite to lead Jones through the left side of the line.

On Jones's TD run, Johnson and Gurode turned their men left and right respectively, opening an enormous lane for Jones. For one of the few times all year Jones could reach the secondary with a full head of steam. Gurode, a free agent this spring, may make the front office reconsider keeping him. He was a flop as a guard last year but made a difference Saturday.

Polite also had his best day blocking. He didn't destroy the Panthers linebackers and safeties, but locked them up long enough to let Jones get by. His play underscores how important good fullback play is to the running game.

Redemption is the theme of the day
The Cowboys bounced back as a team from their humiliating loss in Washington. Ware and Torrin Tucker led the comebacks, with Tucker handling Mike Rucker extensively in solo pass blocking and turning in a good day of run blocking. We also witnessed a couple of bounce backs within the space of the game:

Tyson Thompson gave Carolina an early break when he fumbled the kickoff immediately after the Panthers had taken a 3-0 lead. Carrying the ball in his left hand, he failed to wrap up with two hands after one defender swatted at the ball, failed to wrap up after a second defender swatted at his arm and paid for it when a third defender hit him from behind and punched the ball loose.

Thompson was left in the game and made amends when he returned the kickoff after Proehl's TD to the Dallas 42, giving the Cowboys momentum for their game winning drive.

Roy Williams made up for his early coverage gaffe with a Willie Mayesque over the shoulder interception of Delhomme on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Other notables
Terence Newman had some safety help, but was the prime reason Steve Smith left the game with one catch for 16 yards. Smith was visibly frustrated and yelled at the Panthers sideline to get him the ball several times before he was ejected.

Jacques Reeves was targeted on a few deep passes and gave up nothing.

Ryan Fowler got extensive playing time at inside linebacker for Scott Shanle. He covered well and played the run effectively. Look for him to get more reps this week.

The Panthers complained all week that CB Ken Lucas deserved to make the Pro Bowl. I'll bet they're a little quieter now. Keyshawn Johnson abused Lucas on a couple of short passes, which then became long gains.

You can't do that
At the end of the first half, Bill Parcells had an argument with two officials, claiming they cost Dallas 12 seconds of playing time. With Dallas at first and ten on the Panthers' 20 and 35 seconds left in the half, Bledsoe was sacked. The Cowboys did not stop the clock until there were 19 seconds left.

On the sidelines, Parcells screamed to the side judge and to the referree that he signed for a timeout much earlier. One replay clearly shows him mouthing the line, "I called time out with 31 seconds left!"

Nice try, Bill, but the refs were right here. Bledsoe was hit by a rushing Panthers lineman at 31 seconds. Parcells assumed he would get a quick whistle and started to signal time out. However, the linemen did not wrap up Bledsoe. He did a half roll and backed his way back to the line of scrimmage before he was stopped and the whistle was blown. It was an odd looking play, but did not stop until there were 24 seconds on the clock. Bledsoe erred in not calling the timeout immediately, costing Dallas a pass into the end zone before Cundiff was brought on with 7 seconds left for his game tying attempt, which Peppers blocked.

Play of the Game:
The Panthers have all the early momentum. The 69 yard bomb to Proehl set up a field goal. They struck for a 32 yard TD to Drew Carter just nine seconds after John Kasay's kick, on the play following Tyson Thompson's fumble.

Drew Bledsoe is sacked on the first Cowboys play after the Panthers' ensuing kickoff. Dallas faces a critical third and ten on its own 20. If it can't move the ball, it faces another possible early blowout.

Dallas goes three wide, with Glenn in the right slot. It rolls Bledsoe out to the right, where Dan Campbell is helping Rob Petitti. Marion Barber provides backside contain against pursuing linemen. Bledsoe loads up and flings deep, where Glenn has run and out and up, shaking free from his cornerback pursuer. Glenn slows to catch the underthrown pass. The Panthers safety, his back turned to the throw, shoves Glenn in the chest as the ball approaches. Glenn keeps his concentration and makes the grab for a 51 yard gain.

His extra attention gives the Cowboys a bonus; Bledsoe was roughed after throwing the pass. Glenn's reception allows Dallas to decline the pass interference flag that was thrown and tack 15 yards for a personal foul onto the pass. The Cowboys gain 66 yards on the play, moving to the Panthers' 14. Julius Jones scores on an 8 yard draw three plays later and the momentum shifts to Dallas.

Save of the Game:
This goes to Sean Payton, whose craft play calls help the Cowboys escape two egregious mistakes. Midway through the third quarter, the Cowboys have forced the second Panthers three and out of the second half. They are starting at their own 39, trailing 13-10. On first down, a three-yard Julius Jones' run is negated by a stupid Rob Petitti personal foul; blocking on the backside of the play, Petitti ran up to a Panthers cornerback and raked his right thumb across the player's eyes.

Facing first and 25, Dallas regains 20 yards on a three yard Jones draw and a seventeen yard Jones screen pass. Facing a very makeable third and five, the line misplays, with Torrin Tucker flagged for a false start.

Now facing third and ten, Payton puts two tight ends on Petitti's flank and Barber in the backfield. He keeps Dan Campbell in to help his RT and gives Bledsoe the showpiece throw for all QBs -- the 18 yard out. Bledsoe times his throw perfectly to Keyshawn, who has run off Ken Lucas.

Julius Jones scores his TD on the following play, but he only got the chance because Payton overcame 20 yards of penalties.