Check below for previous scouting reports in this series:
The Cowboys will begin the regular season in Charlotte, North Carolina to take on the Panthers. Despite recent changes in ownership and front office personnel, the Panthers are still very similar to the team that went 11-5 last year and has made the playoffs four times in the past five seasons, including a Super Bowl berth in 2015.
A lot of that is due to head coach Ron Rivera, quarterback Cam Newton, and linebacker Luke Kuechly. A lot of players and coaches have changed in recent years for this team, but this trio has anchored the team through it all. Before breaking down this matchup, let’s get an insider report from our Panthers counterpart, Cat Scratch Reader, and their managing editor, Bradley Smith:
1. What is your biggest concern for the team entering the 2018 season?
Can the Panthers adjust from the Mike Shula era to the Norv Turner era and still produce enough offense to remain competitive? Shula’s offense was often criticized for poor situational play-calling and predictability. Can Turner change that and make the team more difficult to game plan against?
2. What was the best addition to the team this offseason?
DJ Moore and Torrey Smith. Cam Newton finally has multiple weapons at wide receiver at his disposal and isn’t forced to carry guys who wouldn’t make any other team’s 53-man roster.
3. How is this team different from last year’s team, for better or worse?
Better: We have an actual, real wide receiver corps now. Worse: We have a literal hole at left guard. Letting Andrew Norwell walk in free agency made the offensive line worse.
4. What do you think is a realistic goal for this team in 2018?
A realistic goal for this team is to win the NFC South and make a deep playoff run. I think they have the talent there to do that, and anything short of a playoff appearance should be looked upon as a failure.
Smith reveals a lot about this team. Offensively, the Panthers have a great quarterback in Newton who’s just as much a threat to beat you with his arm as with his legs. Christian McCaffrey at running back can do it all, making big plays in the running and receiving game. And adding Torrey Smith, Jarius Wright, and rookie DJ Moore, their receiving corps has some talent outside of Greg Olsen. Devin Funchess and Curtis Samuel have both shown flashes, but not enough to be relied on consistently yet.
As Smith notes, though, the offensive line offers some problems. Center Ryan Kalil and right guard Trai Turner are both solid blockers, and Daryl Williams played well in his first year starting at right tackle; Pro Football Focus ranked him as the fourth best right tackle for 2017. But losing Andrew Norwell will hurt. The best option to replace him is Amini Silatolu, who received such a low PFF score last year that he didn’t even rank. Next to Silatolu is Matt Kalil, who started all 16 games at left tackle but gave up the third-highest amount of sacks in 2017 with eight.
This weakness on the left side of the offensive line is where the Cowboys can attack. Penetrating the line of scrimmage early and often is a surefire way to disrupt any offense. If Silatolu is the one blocking at left guard, it shouldn’t really matter who lines up at the 1-technique defensive tackle spot. It could be Maliek Collins or Jihad Ward or anyone else, and they can probably have success. Ryan Kalil will almost certainly end up double-teaming, but that leaves Matt Kalil on an island protecting the blind side.
This is where Dallas can unleash an arsenal of edge rushers. Given that this matchup will be the season opener, don’t expect too much from Randy Gregory, as he still works to get into shape and earn his snaps. However, Taco Charlton, Kony Ealy, and Dorance Armstrong, among others, will get looks. Rod Marinelli might even try flipping DeMarcus Lawrence to the weak side occasionally, depending on how Williams does blocking the Tank.
The big question, though, is that of the Panthers’ scheme. As Smith said, Carolina moved on from Mike Shula after complaints of being too boring and predictable. They then turned to Norv Turner, who is not exactly the shining example of offensive ingenuity and innovation. Turner cut his teeth from the Air Coryell offense, and he has traditionally favored a power running game with deep throws down the sideline to stretch the defense. The only noticeable difference from the scheme Shula ran is that Turner calls more downfield throws, which should play well to the arm strength of Newton.
Turner’s offenses have succeeded in the past: in Dallas, with Emmitt Smith establishing the run and Troy Aikman slinging passes, and in San Diego with LaDainian Tomlinson and Philip Rivers. With McCaffrey and Newton, Turner has very different players. McCaffrey may turn out to be a stud, but right now he’s not Emmitt or LT, and Newton isn’t as accurate as Aikman or Rivers. Turner once had a player with a skill set similar to McCaffrey: Darren Sproles. During his time in San Diego, Sproles was effective as an option to run and go out as a receiver, but he always felt underutilized. When he left, his production skyrocketed. In Turner’s scheme, McCaffrey’s full potential may never be realized.
As has been throughout history, the key to stopping Norv Turner offenses is by stopping the run and not giving up big passes. Under Marinelli, the Cowboys defense has traditionally been great at not allowing big plays through the air. In fact, the last time Dallas played Carolina, which was the 2015 Thanksgiving game, Newton was limited to just 183 passing yards and no touchdowns. The defense is much better than it was then. As mentioned earlier, getting pressure on that left side of the offensive line is the key to disturbing Newton. The threat then is if he scrambles. It would be smart to have either Jaylon Smith or Leighton Vander Esch in a zone or a QB spy role on third down passing situations to chase him down if he scrambles.
Stopping McCaffrey will be difficult, but if Turner still hasn’t figured out how to properly use him by Week 1, this task becomes easier. He’ll run behind that right side of the line a lot, so Lawrence and the 3-technique defensive tackle must be on their “A” game. David Irving will be suspended, so Datone Jones and perhaps Tyrone Crawford will be inside taking on the right guard. The important part, however, will be Vander Esch and Smith at the next level. If they can get through the blocks and get to McCaffrey before his elite speed picks up, they can stop this running game. Jeff Heath, who will likely be up in the box for a lot of the game, also needs to step up in taking on McCaffrey in rush attempts.
For the Cowboys’ own offense, it’ll be a much harder challenge. Defense has been a calling card for the Panthers, as Rivera himself is a former defensive coordinator. Kuechly is just as unstoppable as Sean Lee, except Kuechly has never missed more than six games in a season. Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson round out an exceptional linebacker corps that excels in both pass coverage and run stopping.
The defensive line is just as stout. Kawann Short is a dominant presence at defensive tackle, and he’s racked up 24.5 sacks in the past three seasons. Defensive ends Julius Peppers and Mario Addison each had 11 sacks last year, while rotational players Wes Horton and Kyle Love combined for nine additional sacks. Now, the monster that is Dontari Poe joins the team. It’s clear that the pass rush comes from the trenches, and the linebackers shut down anything that gets past the line of scrimmage.
The secondary is the big question mark, though. It’s usually not good when a linebacker leads your team in interceptions, but that was the case for Carolina last year. James Bradberry and Daryl Worley tied for most interceptions by a cornerback with just two. Safety Mike Adams also had two, and hybrid defender Colin Jones had one. Nobody else in the secondary had any.
Now, Worley is gone and Bradberry looks to be the top cornerback. Perhaps Captain Munnerlyn will get a more prominent role after not starting a game last year, but free agent signee Ross Cockrell and rookie out of LSU Donte Jackson will also be in the competition for early snaps. Adams returns as the incumbent strong safety, but the free safety spot seems up for grabs between Jones, Da’Norris Searcy, and rookie Rashaan Gaulden. This accompanies some uncertainties at the coaching level, too. Steve Wilks had long been the defensive backs coach for Carolina, and was the defensive coordinator last year, but he is gone to be the head coach of the Cardinals. Last year’s defensive backs coach, Curtis Fuller, resigned amid misconduct allegations.
With all these new coaches and questions about who plays where in the secondary, it seems likely that this pass defense won’t be fully figured out by Week 1. That’s good for the Cowboys, as running the ball against this front seven will be rather difficult. Even with the expected resurgence of the offensive line and a hungry Ezekiel Elliott, getting past Short and Kuechly will be hard. Don’t think the Cowboys won’t run the ball, though, because they will.
But when Dak Prescott goes back to pass, there should be several windows for him to throw into. If guys like Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley, and Michael Gallup can get separation and run into these windows, Prescott will end up making some big plays. The most important thing for him is to be constantly aware of where Kuechly is on the field. One type of play that could be incredibly effective here is a play-action screen to a receiver. If Prescott fakes a handoff to Elliott, and the majority of the offensive line starts pulling to block for him, Prescott can throw a quick flip the other way to someone like Tavon Austin or Gallup, who can run with other receivers and tight ends blocking. This concept would make the front seven bite hard on the fake to stop Elliott, and the screen would set up some dangerous runners with favorable matchups.
The key to offensive success here will be getting the passing game going against this porous and as-of-yet-incomplete secondary. It’s a situation where Prescott can get his season off to a good start, but will face one of the best linebackers in the NFL and what’s sure to be a loud and hostile crowd. Don’t expect Elliott to put up big numbers, but Prescott should be able to make enough plays with his arm to run an efficient and effective offense. If the defense can contain McCaffrey and not give up any deep throws, this should be a win on the road for the Cowboys to begin their 2018 season.