The Carolina Panthers have been known for their great defense in recent years as they have been one of the stingiest squads in yards allowed over the last three seasons. But the 2015 version of the Panthers is a little more than just defense. This team can flat out play offense as they are ranked third in the NFL in scoring with 29 points a game. One of the biggest reasons for such a rise in performance on the offensive side is the team's 100 million dollar quarterback, Cam Newton. The two-time Pro Bowl quarterback is having his best season since the Panthers selected him as the first overall pick in 2011 and is looking like a strong candidate for MVP.
Newton is a playmaker. A lot is made about what he can do with his legs, but it's that strong right arm that is causing the damage. It would have seemed like the Panthers aerial attack would be in dire straits after the team lost star receiver, Kelvin Benjamin to a season ending injury during the last week of training camp. Benjamin had a great rookie season tallying 73 catches for over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014. But the Panthers offense keeps rolling. The Panthers have relied on the play of some savvy veteran pass catchers like Ted Ginn Jr. and Jerricho Cotchery, as well as rookie, Devin Funchess to pick up the slack. It doesn't seem to matter who the receivers are, Newton knows how to use them to make plays. And these receivers are good compliments to each other. Ginn Jr. is the speedster than can beat you over the top, and Funchess has the strength to out-fight defensive backs for the ball.
While the names of the wide receivers may not seem to threatening, the same is not true when it comes to their tight end. Greg Olsen is an absolute beast. For the second straight season, Olsen has the most receiving yards for a tight end that is not named Rob Gronkowski. Newton already has 20 touchdowns on the year, with most of them going to Olsen.
As effective as the Panthers passing game has been this season, their bread and butter has been their rushing attack. Jonathan Stewart has carried the ball 190 times for 764 yards, which ties him with Davonta Freeman for fifth best in the league. The eight year veteran running back has had an injury riddled career, but he's been healthy this season and it has paid dividends. Between Stewart and the added yards delivered by Newton, the Panthers offense are fourth in the league with 139.9 yards per game.
So how can the Cowboys defense slow the Panthers down?
Newton is a physical specimen. His size/speed combo makes him one of the toughest quarterbacks to wrap up. And while he's improved as a pocket passer, he can still be erratic with his passes. He will rifle it to his receivers, but the accuracy is not always there. Sometimes he can thread the needle and other times he'll throw behind a wide open receiver. The Cowboys defense must make him rush his throws. Pressure needs to come from all sides because if Cam is able to find space, he can beat you with his arm or his legs. If you get up in his business and obstruct his throwing lanes, he'll sometimes resort to side-arming it to his receivers. The Cowboys need Cam to be off-target in this game.
The Cowboys defensive front seven needs to be sharp in deciphering what Newton does with the read option. One wrong step here or there, and it's going to result in a big play for the Panthers.
Byron Jones needs to cover Greg Olsen
It will be interesting to see how Rod Marinelli chooses to defend Olsen. With Morris Claiborne out for a second straight game, Byron Jones should log some time at the corner spot, but it seems inevitable that he'll wind up covering the Panthers star tight end at some point. For starters, Jones has done a remarkable job defending tight ends this year, including keeping Gronkowski to only 67 yards in week five. Not only is Jones the Cowboys best option in covering Olsen, but the Panthers don't have any significantly tough cover at receivers. Brandon Carr and Tyler Patmon should be able to handle the wide receivers. If a Panther wide receiver has a big game, it's not going to be because they are beating the corner; it's going to be because Cam put the ball right where it needed to be. So don't waste Jones on a receiver. Have him blanket Olsen and force Newton to look elsewhere.
Stop the run up the middle
These seems like a concern every game, but the Cowboys run defense has started to settle in, only allowing an average of 75 yards over the last two games. When they are vulnerable, it usually comes between the tackles. The defense employs the services of defensive ends who play inside on several snaps per game so the front line doesn't come equipped with the normal run stopping power that most lines have. This group has been solid, but the real difference is the play of the Cowboys linebackers. Sean Lee and Rolando McClain looked good last Sunday against Miami, but they'll need to be real disciplined against the Panthers. If the Cowboys start having problems stopping the run, they'll be setting themselves up for disaster when Cam catches them over-committing and launches one deep.