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Strapping Up Against Yourself: Cowboys vs. Panthers Preview, Part I

Two teams with high expectations and flat starts square off Monday Night when the Cowboys play the Panthers. Dallas is trying to avoid a 1-2 start after a very sloppy start by it's defense.  The Panthers would be 0-3 if they dropped this contest.  They've had a roller coaster history under John Fox (their win totals the past few years have been 7-11-7-11-8-7 and 12).

Carolina seems to either improve four games or decline four games a season.  They tied for the NFC's best record last year at 12-4 and are probably already experiencing some bad deja-va.  It's Dallas' job to maroon them in that funk.

When Dallas Has the Ball

Two games, two 30+ outputs.  Jason Garrett has ripped opponents through the air and on the ground.  In week one, Tampa Bay walked corners to the line and run and pass blitzed them from the slots. Garrett motioned his receivers and tight ends into mismatches and Tony Romo threw three long TD passes.

Last week, Giants coordinator Bill Sheridan game-planned to prevent the big pass.  He often deployed free safety Kenny Phillips 25 yards deep, in a centerfielder role.  (This is something the Ravens do a lot with Ed Reed.)  The Giants manned up on the Dallas receivers and flexed tight ends and played a lot of shallow zones with their linebackers. 

New York subsequently played a lot of ten man football near the line of scrimmage. The plan frustrated Dallas' passing game but gave the Cowboys favorable numbers against the run.  The Dallas runners combined for 251 yards on the ground against a Giants line touted as the conference's best.

Which tactic will the Panthers pick?  Dallas is a two-dimensional offense.  Will Carolina approach the game as the Bucs did, trying to slow the run, or will they play a deep safety or halo two-deep, hoping to contain the run and to get some Romo picks along the way?

If the Atlanta game is any indication, we'll see a more run-first approach.  The Falcons were a very effective running team last year, using Michael Turner as their hammer and Jerious Norwood as the speedy changeup.  They had good games against the Panthers and last week, Carolina tried to slow the Atlanta rush, while trusting its secondary to keep Matt Ryan under some semblance of control.

Jason the Cribber

The Panthers did a fairly effective job. They outgained Atlanta by nearly a hundred yards and kept Turner's yards per attempt to a very respectable total. That said, they're coming to Cowboys Stadium underhanded.  The Panthers have always been a one-tier team, in that they've had great starters in their better years, but no bench.  In '09, they're frayed at some spots on their defensive eleven.  They lost starting DT Ma'ake Kemoeatu in the pre-season and lost replacement Louis Leonard to a broken ankle in the final minute of last week's game.

When healthy, Carolina runs a 4-3 with big tackles and quick ends and linebackers.  It's not that far removed from the scheme Dallas ran in the '90s.  With its thin DT corps, the Carolina middle looks inviting.   Look for Dallas to attack it with a play Jason Garrett cribbed from the Falcons, and used against New York last week to great effect. It's an inside counter from an I-formation.  The NFL Network ran a profile of this play last week while highlighting Atlanta's running game.  The game tape, coincidentally, showed it being run very effectively against the Panthers.

Sunday night, Dallas ran the play out of its two-TE, two-back package.  Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett are put on each end of the line, giving a balanced look.  At the snap, both backs step one way, in this case right, to draw the New York front in that direction.  The Dallas linemen then help the defense in the direction they are already slanting. If Witten gets a solid seal on the backside, as he did on this play, a huge cutback lane is created:

(hat tip to Bob Sturn of D Magazine's Inside Corner and to his assistant Brian for creating the graphics and clip)

The Cowboys have not been a particularly good inside running team in recent years, so their success with this play and other isolations against New York are particularly encouraging.

When Dallas does pass, look for them to look for the tight ends, who Garrett hopes to engage in the play action up-and-down progress.

Also look for Dallas to target CB Chris Gamble. He had one of the worst, if not the worst YPAs or any starting corner from 2004 through 2007.  He picked his play way up last season and the Panthers rewarded him with a big extension while cutting Ken Lucas, who had been very consistent on the other edge.  Lucas' job was handed to Richard Marshall.

As the story title implies, there are several similarities between these teams besides their sluggish starts.  The Panthers have one monster rusher, RE Julius Peppers, and little else.  Peppers bagged 14.5 of Carolina's 37 sacks last year.  Rookie end Charles Johnson added six and the rest were scattered among the remainder of Carolina's defensive roster.

If the Cowboys front can neutralize Peppers, Romo should have time to pass.  The Falcons' Sam Baker kept Peppers quiet last week and it helped Matt Ryan have a big day.  Dallas has yet to allow a sack, so I don't expect a lot of pressure from Carolina unless it blitzes.  The Panthers don't like to do that, and if they do, Romo will get more matchups of the type he got against Tampa Bay.

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