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Cowboys vs. Panthers: “Christian McCaffrey is an impossible player to replace”

Get the lowdown on the Panthers from people who know.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

With the Dallas Cowboys getting ready to host the Carolina Panthers, we turn to the experts on the opposition, our friends at Cat Scratch Reader. We asked five questions to get the skinny on the arriving cats.

Blogging The Boys: Given the Panthers 3-0 record, but questions about the quality of teams they have played outside of the Saints, what is your feeling about the team right now? Are they as good as their record, or are they benefiting from the schedule?

Cat Scratch Reader: I think the Panthers are legit. They definitely aren’t going to end the season undefeated and the Cowboys look like one of the toughest opponents they will face, but these aren’t paper tigers. The “oh, but their opponents’ argument doesn’t hold up. The Panthers opponents are 3-6, tied with the Raiders for best opponent record amongst the five undefeated teams left in the NFL this season. They’ve beaten the teams on their schedule and the only things that have slowed them down have been their own mistakes. I do not think they will have as easy of a time against Dallas if they don’t clean up their act, but this should be a competitive ball game at the very least.

BTB: What’s your take on Sam Darnold? He seems like a different quarterback with the Panthers. What is he doing well and what is still a concern?

CSR: I’m kind of waiting to see the Dallas game before I give a full verdict on Darnold. Four games just seems a more solid sample size. But, from what we have seen, Darnold is greatly benefiting from a change of scenery and an actual supporting cast. He has demonstrated good movement in the pocket to keep plays alive behind a suspect—and often injured—offensive line and his accuracy has been above and beyond what we were expecting. Darnold has had a few throws he would like to have back, particularly in the red zone, but most of his balls have been well placed. If he can keep up his accuracy and pocket movement while continuing to make good, safe decisions with the ball then he’s going to be the quarterback that everybody thought he was coming into the draft.

And to be clear, safe doesn’t mean scared. Darnold has shown a willingness to push the ball down the field. With both DJ Moore and Robby Anderson on the field, the deep ball can still be a safe play.

BTB: With Christian McCaffrey out, how much will that hurt the offense? Who will have to help pick up the slack and how much effect will it have on Sam Darnold?

CSR: McCaffrey is an impossible player to replace. The team has plays that they love that they simply cannot call with a different back on the field. That showed in the first half against the Texans after he was injured and the Panthers weakly stalled out until half time. However, this team is also capable of being ‘the Carolina Panthers’ without any one player. Left tackle Cam Erving made a point this week of telling the media that they were not the “Carolina Christian McCaffrey’s.” Look no further than the second half of that same Houston game where the Panthers scored a touchdown on every drive in that half.

BTB: The Panthers defense has been a real hyped point of the team so far. What is working so well over there? Who are the players that could slow down the Cowboys offense on Sunday?

CSR: Phil Snow is doing an amazing job of matching coverage and pressure packages to stress the communication of an offensive line. Often, even if the offense has enough blockers for each Panther rushing the passer, Carolina will still have rushers coming free at the quarterback because the opposing line can’t figure out who each man is responsible for. As a fan, it’s fantastic to watch. As an opposing player, it must be a nightmare. That effort has resulted in nine different Panthers having at least part of a sack through three games, with edge players Brian Burns (3) and Haason Reddick (4.5) leading the team.

BTB: The Cowboys were definitely interested in Jaycee Horn in the draft. How well was he playing before the injury? Do you think C.J. Henderson will play this week as a sort of replacement?

CSR: Horn was everything the Panthers were missing last season in the secondary. He was already a player who opposing quarterbacks were starting to avoid on the team and his coverage will be impossible to replace. He has been on the Micah Parsons scale of “holy coy, that guy is only a rookie?” As for Henderson, it may be too early to tell if he’ll be out there. Fans are thrilled the front office were able to snag a top ten pick last season (who the Panthers strongly considered drafting over Derrick Brown) for effectively a third round pick, but we are under no illusions that his contributions are going to be either immediate or a direct replacement for the quality of play that Horn brought to the table.

Thanks for the knowledge, Cat Scratch Reader.

As we do every week we ran a simulation for this week’s Dallas Cowboys game on Madden. The popular video game saw the Cowboys losing to both the Los Angeles Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles (so it was obviously incorrect)... here is how things went against the Panthers.

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