An undefeated Carolina Panthers team, led by their defense and improved quarterback play, enters AT&T stadium to face a Cowboys quarterback returning from a devastating injury. That was the narrative when these two teams squared off in 2015. While the names on the back of the jerseys have changed, the situation is essentially the same.
Granted, this Carolina team is significantly less daunting than the 15-1 Panthers from six years ago. For one thing, the Panthers have faced the second easiest schedule through three weeks. But they deserve credit for starting 3-0, especially as a team everyone had written off before the season began.
As one of the most surprising storylines this year, the Cowboys now face a legitimate test with a Sam Darnold-led team. So, what should Dallas expect in their upcoming matchup?
The Cowboys Offense
Coming into this week, the Panthers defense has allowed 30 total points. To put that into perspective, the Cardinals offense has scored more than 30 points in each of their first three games. There is no way around it; the Panthers defense has been dominant.
However, starting the season playing against Davis Mills, Jameis Winston, and Zach Wilson isn’t necessarily a defense’s worst nightmare. Since this is the first time Carolina will be able to prove their defense is elite, they will come out with a chip on their shoulder.
While it has been fun watching Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard demoralize a defense on the ground, you shouldn’t expect more of that in week four. In terms of EPA per play allowed, the Carolina Panthers are the best team in the league at stopping the run.
Carolina has only allowed 45 rushing yards per game through three weeks, the lowest in the NFL by a sizable margin. The 2.6 yards per carry the Panthers are currently surrendering would have been 1.2 yards lower than the best team in this metric last year.
If you need any more proof of their ability to contain opposing running backs, look no further than what the Panthers did to Alvin Kamara. Carrying the ball eight times, Kamara accumulated a total of five yards on the ground. Quite simply, this game rests on Dak Prescott’s ability to shoulder the burden.
The good news for the Cowboys is that the Panthers can be exploited through the air, especially on early downs. Despite playing against the quarterbacks mentioned above, the Panthers only rank as the eighth-best team in passing EPA per play allowed on early downs.
This plays into Dallas’ strengths, as only three teams have been more successful than the Cowboys in the passing game on first and second down. Expect a similar game plan to week one, where Dallas “runs through the air” by throwing drag routes and screens to set up short-yardage conversions.
Dak is going to have to come out ready to play. The Panthers have allowed six total points in the first half this year. Again, maybe it is because they have not faced an elite quarterback yet. But if Dallas doesn’t set the tone early, the game could get out of hand with a Panthers defense that wants to prove themselves.
To win this game, the Cowboys will have to throw 40+ times. With the Panthers boasting the fifth-best pass-rush according to Pro Football Focus, Dak needs to find his receiver and get the ball out quickly. Establish the pass, and the Cowboys offense shouldn’t have a problem.
The Cowboys Defense
Don’t look now, but after playing Tom Brady, Justin Herbert, and an improved Jalen Hurts, the Cowboys have the eleventh best defense by PFF grading. This is either a setup for bitter disappointment, or Dan Quinn has earned his paycheck.
Equally head-scratching is what Sam Darnold has been able to do with this Panthers offense. In twelve games last year, Darnold threw for more than 250 yards just one time. He has eclipsed that total in every game through three weeks this year.
However, Sam Darnold isn’t a gunslinger. Out of the 32 starting quarterbacks, Darnold is averaging the eighth-lowest average depth of target.
The Panthers have won by employing a conservative offense. With the sixth-most rushing attempts in the league, paired with passes close to the line of scrimmage, Carolina plays to avoid a mistake. Given that the Panthers have turned the ball over twice this year and have only been sacked five times, it appears to be working. However, as Cowboys fans know, this Jason Garrett-esque “play to avoid a loss” can be stopped.
Currently, the Cowboys rank as the eighth-best team in stopping the run on early downs by EPA per play allowed. With Christian McCaffrey out and a rookie, Chuba Hubbard, taking the responsibility on the ground, Dallas needs to stop the rushing attack on first and second down.
In doing so, you set up longer conversion situations for Sam Darnold. As good as Darnold has been, making him throw downfield will likely result in mistakes. With Dallas averaging the most turnovers in the NFL, this will force Carolina to play into the Cowboys’ hand.
However, Dallas hasn’t been tested on the ground yet. Through the first three weeks, the Cowboys’ opponents are averaging 15 rushing attempts per game, the lowest in the NFL. Considering Dallas is allowing 4.7 yards per attempt, it is bewildering that teams have not tried to take advantage on the ground.
The Panthers are not going to pass as frequently as the Cowboys’ last three opponents. Even without McCaffrey, Carolina will run. Micah Parsons, Osa Odighizuwa, Leighton Vander-Esch, and Jaylon Smith will have to set the tone early.
If the Cowboys’ defensive interior and linebacking corps can force Darnold into long-yardage situations, Dallas will be able to produce turnovers. From there, the game is all but won for the Cowboys. However, if they allow the Panthers to establish the ground game, it turns into a toss-up. This game hinges on the defense’s ability to take advantage of a weaker Carolina backfield.
Coaching and Special Teams
Very few are talking about the Cowboys special teams’ performance last week, which is how it should be. As long as John Fassel and his squad are coached well and doing their job, no one will be discussing special teams.
However, against an undefeated Panthers team, special teams needs to be a non-factor once again. Carolina is averaging 21 yards per return on kickoffs and eight yards per return on punts, essentially meaning there is no one the Cowboys should be afraid of kicking towards.
The one asterisk in the special teams’ performance last week was Greg Zuerlein’s missed PAT. Since joining the Cowboys at the start of 2020, 31 kickers have a better extra point percentage than Zuerlein, with a minimum of ten attempts. Over this same span, Zuerlein is also behind 26 kickers in field goal percentage.
Now is not the time to discuss a switch at kicker, but things need to change quickly. The Cowboys cannot waste points in the kicking game and expect to win, no matter the opponent. If the Panthers defense is anywhere near the level of the first three weeks, missing kicks will result in a loss.
Finish the tackles in the open field, kick out of the end zone to prevent any return possibilities, make the easy field goals, and avoid penalties that will back up the offense. While it is easier said than done, Cowboys fans should hope for another week where we do not need to discuss special teams.
As for coaching, we will see how Mike McCarthy manages the clock. In the final seconds of the Chargers game in week two, and then at the end of the first half against Philadelphia, McCarthy made some head-scratching decisions.
The clock management in the Chargers game was questionable, and you can debate if it was the right choice or not. But there is no reasonable explanation for what happened in week three. However, the Cowboys got a win in both games, so it did not impact the outcome. Hopefully, McCarthy has learned from these mistakes and coaches a clean game on Sunday.
Before the season started, few would have assumed that Darnold versus Prescott would be a compelling matchup. The Panthers playing well gives the Cowboys another opportunity to prove they can beat an above-average team.
One of the best offenses through three weeks faces one of the best defenses. This game will likely be more competitive than last Monday night, which is not a bold statement.
The storylines are set; now it is time for the Cowboys to perform.
Likelihood of the Cowboys winning: 52.7%
Final Score: Dallas Cowboys 28, Carolina Panthers 23