Congratulations! We have made it through the long months without NFL football, and now we look forward to watching the Cowboys take the field this Sunday against a very formidable opponent.
The Cowboys open the 2018 season against a playoff team in the Carolina Panthers, led by quarterback Cam Newton and a stingy defense that was just outside the top-10 in team defense in 2017. Needless to say, the silver and blue must be prepared for a battle if they expect to walk out of Bank of America Stadium with a victory to begin the season.
Today, we will look at the offensive personnel on the Panthers roster, and who the Cowboys will be tasked with defending on Sunday afternoon.
As with the majority of offenses on any level, the Panthers go as their quarterback goes. Cam Newton, the first overall selection of the 2011 NFL Draft, is a dual-threat signal-caller that has the ability to torment defenses with his cannon of an arm and his tree trunks for legs. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback has an MVP and a Super Bowl appearance to his name, proving that he is one of the more dangerous players across the league.
For all of the talent Newton has, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner has had his inconsistencies from game-to-game and season-to-season. While some of that can be attributed to poor play-calling or porous offensive line play, Newton struggles to hit the consistent passes and is far from the most accurate passer in the world.
Newton presents a unique challenge for the Cowboys as the two squads clash in Charlotte on Sunday afternoon. Rod Marinelli is tasked with game-planning to take away the big play through the air while also finding a way to neutralize Newton’s legs. A season ago, the freakish specimen accounted for 3,302 yards and 22 touchdowns to 16 interceptions on a 59.1% completion percentage to go along with 754 yards and six scores on the ground.
DeMarcus Lawrence is aware of the need to keep Newton in the pocket so that he can’t hurt the defense with his legs and athleticism.
Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence on Cam Newton: "He's big, he's strong. He's a great quarterback. Our main job is just keeping him in the pocket and being us. You can't worry about Cam, bro. Cam going to be Cam."— Brandon George (@DMN_George) September 6, 2018
That is obviously a lot easier said than done, though. That said, the Cowboys would be wise to have a spy (Jaylon Smith, maybe?) to keep Netwon from scrambling around and potentially moving the chains with his feet. Saints writer Nick Underhill wrote an interesting piece on how New Orleans defended Newton in a late season match-up last year.
So, the Saints entered the game with the idea that it would build a wall and try to bully its way to Newton, instead of trying to beat offensive linemen around the edges. This sometimes meant giving him ample time to sit in the pocket and go through his reads, which was a better alternative than seeing him tuck the ball and take off for a long run.
To achieve this, New Orleans often had its inside guys try to get a push, build a wall in the middle of the line, try to collapse the pocket and do more bull-rushing than what is typical. What New Orleans didn’t want is for Newton to be able to step up and escape through the gaps between the guards and center. If Newton was going to be able to run, the Saints wanted to force him to go the long way to the edges, where all 11 defensive players could run to him.
Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard have a tough task on their hands in game-planning to stop one of the more unique talents across the league. You cannot just blindly blitz against Newton, rather collapsing the pocket and bringing in an extra defender will help neutralize much of Cam’s skill-set. It will be fascnating to see how the Cowboys defense performs.
Led by Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers have a variety of weapons ready for the Cowboys defense right out of the gate in week one. The eighth overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft is a Swiss-army knife capable of making an impact as both a runner and as a receiver. McCaffrey totaled 1,306 yards and seven touchdowns from scrimmage on an average of 13 touches per game during his rookie campaign. This season, McCaffery could see as many as 25 touches per game, according to offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
“I read coach Rivera said 20-25 touches per game, so that’s probably realistic,” said Turner. “I think every game comes up different. I keep telling our guys, what we want to do is look at a team, see what they do well, see what they don’t do well, and match up what we do well against their weaknesses.
“There’s a lot of different ways to attack people, and I think our players understand that they are all going to get an opportunity to contribute. Some days, guys are gonna get more than others. Christian will get his share.”
Needless to say, the Cowboys must identify where 22 is at all times, as the Stanford product showcased a little bit of what he can last season en route to averaging nearly six yards per touch in 2017. With a heavier workload this season — especially without long-time back Jonathan Stewart on the roster — McCaffrey should be near the top of the Cowboys’ concerns in week one.
Elsewhere, the Panthers have some intriguing options at receiver and at tight end that the Cowboys must be prepared for; however, the sudden loss of dynamic back/slot receiver Curtis Samuel is one less weapon for Newton and Turner to utilize.
Even still, Carolina’s pass-catchers include the likes of 6-foot-4 Devin Funchess, veteran tight end Greg Olsen, and new additions in free agent acquisition Torrey Smith and electrifying first-round draft pick D.J. Moore. Funchess, the team’s leading receiver, hauled in 840 yards and eight scores a season ago. Olsen only played in seven games last season — 17 catches, 191 yards, one touchdown — due to a foot injury, but the 33-year old tight end has been a security blanket for Newton. The Cowboys must be aware of Olsen on third downs.
Smith is a big play threat that has averaged over 16 yards per reception during his seven-season career. Last season, the Maryland product was on the opposite side of the field of Alshon Jeffery for the Eagles, where Smith grabbed 36 passes for 430 yards and a pair of scores. Don’t be surprised to see Newton attempt one or two deep shots to the veteran receiver on Sunday.
Moore, another Maryland product, was the second wide receiver selected in the past NFL Draft. One of my favorite prospects in the class possesses nice size at 6-foot and 210-pounds to go with his 4.4 speed that makes him dangerous to find the end zone from anywhere on the field.
DJ Moore has juice. Tackle-breaking demon at Maryland. pic.twitter.com/norOtycTP4— Robert Viera (@FootballStock) August 31, 2018
Moore grabbed four passes for 75 yards in the Panthers’ preseason opener against the Bills in a win, but the first-rounder finished the next three games without recording a single catch. Are the Panthers hiding something as they gear up for the Cowboys, or is Moore struggling to adjust to the professional level? Norv Turner says Moore “will be a big part” of the offense.
Panthers offensive coordinators Norv Turner says rookie wide receiver DJ Moore is ready to go and will be a big part of the what the Panthers do.— Steve Reed (@SteveReedAP) September 6, 2018
The Big Uglies
The Panthers aren’t exactly known for having an elite offensive line, but they did see their right tackle, Daryl Williams, reach second-team All-Pro status after a phenomenal season in 2017; however, Williams suffered a scary knee injury early in training camp. After initially expected to miss the first few games of the season, head coach Ron Rivera said on Friday that he is “building confidence” in his star tackle suiting up on Sunday.
Head coach Ron Rivera is “building confidence” that right tackle Daryl Williams and versatile offensive lineman Amini Silatolu could play in Sunday’s season opener against the Cowboys, but it could be a game-time decision.
“I’m building confidence in them. It’s one of those things if you had another day to practice and really, truly be able stress them the way you’d want to, you could tell a lot,” Rivera said. “They came in today pretty good, and the last couple of days we’ve been able to increase their workload and have them take the reps that have been set up for them. That’s been outstanding. Each day we get a little bit more, so we’ll see. Tomorrow will be the final walkthrough, and we’ll see how they are.”
But how effective will he be in week one? Williams is not the only Carolina starter dealing with an injury as Sunday approaches. Starting left tackle Matt Kalil, who had an arthroscopic scope on his right knee during the preseason, was placed on injured reserve, meaning that he will miss at least the first eight games of the season. Amini Silatolu, the starter at left guard, is recovering from a torn meniscus and has been limited in practice — though, Rivera believes that he could play as well.
As you can see, there is not a ton of depth along the Panthers’ front at the moment. When you add that to the fact that first team All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell departed in favor of a huge pay day with the Jaguars, DeMarcus Lawrence and company should be licking their chops. Pro Football Focus rated the Panthers offensive line as the 21st best in the NFL — and that was before the recent injuries.
The loss of Norwell is going to hurt. While the backup plan currently looks like some combination of Jeremiah Sirles (45.2 overall grade in 2017) or Amini Silatolu (40.5), it will be interesting to see if they kick Taylor Moton into guard eventually. He was one of the highest-graded guards in the country as a junior for Western Michigan before switching to tackle as a senior. Moton was also one of PFF’s favorite offensive linemen in last year’s draft yet saw only 70 snaps as a rookie.
Getting to the quarterback and stopping the run are priorities number one against a team with such of a dynamic quarterback — especially with the uncertainty surrounding Carolina’s offensive line. Dallas’ front seven will have the opportunity to make the Panthers one-dimensional
Stat to Know: 42.26% Third Down Percentage
Carolina’s offense was among the best in converting third-down opportunities in 2017, as their 42.26% conversion percentage was good for seventh best in the NFL. If Dallas is going to have any chance to win this game, getting off of the field and giving the ball back into the hands of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott is crucial.
The Panthers have a plethora of weapons ready to unleash against the Cowboys, but the Dallas front seven has the potential to give the team a critical advantage that can take over a football game. While the Hot Boyz should eat plenty on Sunday, the linebackers and defensive backs will have a big say in whether or not the Cowboys will walk out with a ‘W’ on Sunday.