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Behind enemy lines: How the Carolina Christian McCaffreys are preparing for the Cowboys

What the Panthers are saying ahead of the game against the Cowboys.

Dallas Cowboys v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Carolina Christian McCaffreys plan to stick to their game plan - even without McCaffrey.

Minus McCaffrey, Panthers visit Cowboys - Shuyler Dixon, Raleigh News & Observer
The Panthers will be without star running back Christian McCaffrey when they visit the Cowboys.

The Panthers (3-0) will have to figure on needing plenty of points even with the NFL’s No. 1 defense because of the way quarterback Dak Prescott, Elliott and company are playing for the league’s fifth-best offense.

“We’re not called the Carolina Christian McCaffreys,” tackle Cameron Erving, who played for the Cowboys last year, said after the star back was injured in the first quarter of last week’s 24-9 victory at Houston. “Everybody understands that we have to step up and make plays when he’s not in there. At receiver, at tight end, at quarterback.”

Panthers collapsed under McCaffrey’s last injury. It’s on Sam Darnold to prevent that - Jonathan M. Alexander, Raleigh News & Observer
The last time McCaffrey missed time due to injury, the Panthers offense didn't fare well. Will history repeat?

The Panthers hoped the injury concerns with Christian McCaffrey were over. They had hoped to never have another season similar to the one they did last year when they were without their best player.

McCaffrey missed 13 games in 2020, and offensively, the Panthers were a shell of themselves without him.

In Thursday’s game against the Texans, that reality played out again. While the Panthers were winners Thursday, 24-9 over the Texans, they were nowhere near as good without McCaffrey as they were with him.

McCaffrey went out with a hamstring injury with 12:13 left in the second quarter and did not return. During the final 12:13 of the first half, the Panthers netted 17 total yards, which included the yards lost from the multiple sacks quarterback Sam Darnold took.

In the second half, the Panthers made adjustments. But winning, even by 15 points, didn’t come easy. Darnold passed for 146 yards in the second half, and added a rushing touchdown — his second of the game and third of the season to lead the team in that category.

Darnold said nothing changed when McCaffrey went out. The quarterback didn’t deliver a special message to his teammates, nor did he change up his style of play.

“For us, it’s just executing the plays that are called,” Darnold said.

Matt Rhule: ‘Can’t replace’ Christian McCaffrey, but offensive plan will be same with Chuba Hubbard - Grant Gordon, NFL.com
Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule clarified Wednesday that rookie running back Chuba Hubbard would get the start and the offense would have the same outlook as it did with Christian McCaffrey in the backfield.

“Obviously, you can’t replace the production of Christian McCaffrey,’’ Rhule said, via ESPN’s David Newton. “But those other players, they’ve been waiting for their opportunity. Who knows what they can do when given an opportunity.

“I don’t think it’s fair, right, to Sam [Darnold] and to the offensive line to go away from what we’ve been doing. We’ve been working on it for a long time.”

Panthers’ Hubbard stepping in for McCaffrey | Steve Reed, Raleigh News & Observer
RB Chuba Hubbard is expected to get his first NFL start against the Cowboys with Christian McCaffrey out with a hamstring injury.

Quarterback Sam Darnold said that while playing without McCaffrey is “not ideal,” he’s confident the rookie will be productive if he doesn’t try to do too much.

“He doesn’t have to do anything special,” Darnold said. “He just has to do his job every day. That is what we ask of everyone. And we aren’t going to ask him to do anything more just because Christian is out.”

Rhule said it would be unfair to Darnold and the offensive line to dramatically change the game plan just because McCaffrey is out.

Sure, there will be different formations and the Panthers may skip some plays that McCaffrey runs well. But for the most part Rhule has told players they’ll continue to do what they normally do against the Cowboys.

“They’re not asking me to change much at all,” Darnold said. “There are things Christian does out there that you simply can’t replicate. But it’s about me following my reads and knowing where to go with the ball. Those things don’t change for me.”

McCaffrey word count in this post: 23

(Dak) Prescott word count in this post: 14

Can the Panthers get to Prescott?

Notebook: Pass-rushers have a different test this week - Darin Gantt, Panthers.com
Dak Prescott presents a unique challenge for the Panthers pass rush, because he gets the ball out so quickly, Gantt explains.

Despite the fact they lead the NFL with 14 sacks, the Panthers are going to have to pressure differently this week.

Defensive coordinator Phil Snow pointed out how quickly Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott gets rid of the ball, among the other factors that make him a different challenge. Asked if this week's pass rush is more complicated, Snow replied: "It really is. He's getting rid of the football, most times in under 2.4 seconds.

"It's hard to sack the guy. You're just not going to sack him very often," Snow continued. "But you can try to get him off-rhythm a little bit. But that's hard to do too, because he recognizes what you're in and what you're doing too, and he gets rid of the football really quickly.

"Plus their passing game, there's not a type of pass they don't use. They sprint out, they dash, they boot, they three-step, they drop-back, they screen you, they do everything. Dak has a lot of tools he can utilize, and he does. He's very well-schooled at what he does."

"If he can get rid of the football without people on bodies, that's what he does," Snow said. "He's not trying to beat you deep. Now he will. But he's taking what you give him, and the ball's out.

"We've got to be really effective in our coverages. And if we can take away the easy throws and make him hold the ball a little longer, we can play him a little better. But we'll wait and see."

5 Things to Watch: Pressuring Dak up the middle - Darin Gantt, Panthers.com
Another long day for OC Tyler Biadasz and LG Connor Williams?

The Panthers know that pressuring Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is a complicated task, considering how quickly he gets the ball out.

But Panthers defensive end Brian Burns pointed out that it's not just edge-rushing, but coming up the middle that's important since Prescott has the ability to step up in the pocket to buy time.

"He does get the ball out very fast. He does get rid of the ball. But there are also times where he tries to hold it and extend (plays)," Burns said. "We have to take advantage of those opportunities. It does get frustrating and aggravating when you can't get to the quarterback. But as long as you get in his passing window, or put people in front of him, get in the paint, try to get him off his spot. That's the main thing we can do to disrupt him."

The Panthers Defense Is About to Face Its First Real Test - Ben Solak, The Ringer
Carolina has jumped to a 3-0 record thanks to one of the best defenses in the NFL. But they’ve also taken advantage of inexperienced quarterbacks—will their success change when they face top-tier passers?

The Carolina defense ate up two rookies making their first career starts, both playing behind suspect offensive lines, along with Jameis Winston—perennially one of the most-sacked QBs in the NFL, given his play style. Dak and this Cowboys offense are different, and if Carolina lives by the pressure, it’s likely to get burned.

That’s the cost of running pressure packages: When they don’t land, you become susceptible to explosive passing plays. The Panthers’ passing defense is wicked in almost every metric imaginable, but they’re dead average in explosive passing play rate at 8 percent. When zone defenders are flying around to get to their landmarks, they can struggle to settle in place for tackles or properly space routes. Responsibilities become muddled, and chunk YAC gains and downfield windows both open up—so long as the offensive line and quarterback have enough time to execute.

NFL QB Index, Week 4: Dak Prescott flies up the rankings, Darnold in the middle of the pack - Gregg Rosenthal, NFL.com
Rosenthal updates his ranking of the NFL’s 32 starting quarterbacks, with Dak Prescott soaring into the top three.

No. 2: He’s in total control. Forcing this Dallas offense to punt has been an uphill climb for three straight weeks, with Dak the master of all he surveys. The Cowboys have shown versatility while playing three types of games, adapting well with a veteran offense boasting explosive talent and rare continuity. Listening to Peyton and Eli on Monday night, you heard the honest appreciation of kindred spirits recognizing another pre-snap legend. Dak has picked up where he left off last season, except this time he has a healthy offensive line and a frisky defense.

18. Sam Darnold: Every week, Darnold shows a little more. There were plays against Houston where he made it to his second and third read, and there were plays Darnold made on his own after his protection fell apart. While his league-leading fumble total is a big concern, and he needs to get Robby Anderson and Terrace Marshall Jr. more involved, Darnold looks stable enough to survive without Christian McCaffrey for a while.

Panthers deploy even more effusive praise to lull Cowboys into complacency.


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