The general consensus around the NFL seems to be that the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers, both 3-0 right now, are the biggest surprises of the year. The Cowboys will play both of those teams this year, but the Panthers are the ones on the schedule this week. In their second season under head coach Matt Rhule, Carolina has enjoyed surprisingly strong performances from both their offense and defense; the Panthers rank 12th in offensive DVOA and first in defensive DVOA through three weeks.
The issue for the Panthers, however, is that their sudden respectability around the league is largely a false flag. Carolina has benefited from a fairly easy start to their season. Their first win came at home against the Jets, who were debuting their rookie quarterback Zach Wilson. It’s worth noting that Wilson’s best game, by far, was against this Panthers defense. After narrowly beating the Jets, Carolina hosted a Saints team without eight of their coaches before traveling to Houston to play a Texans team forced to give rookie quarterback Davis Mills his first start of the year.
To say the Panthers have had it easy thus far would be an understatement. Even now, as they travel to Dallas to take on their first real challenge of the year, Carolina has at least one advantage: they haven’t played since Thursday, September 23rd, while the Cowboys most recently played Monday, September 27th. That means Rhule’s team is getting a ten day rest between games while Dallas gets just five days.
But it won’t be all easy sledding for the Panthers. On offense, they lost Christian McCaffrey to a hamstring injury. McCaffrey, about as dynamic a running back as there is, had served as a focal point for offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s attack. His 52 carries are tied for third in the NFL, and McCaffrey was second on the team in targets. Defensively, the Panthers also had to place rookie cornerback Jaycee Horn and safety Juston Burris on injured reserve. Horn and Burris each had an interception to their name already this year and were productive members of this secondary. Carolina did trade for C.J. Henderson, but the former ninth overall pick has yet to play this season and isn’t expected to do much, if anything, for his new team just yet.
The reality, however, is that secondary play hasn’t been this defense’s strong suit. It’s been their front seven. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow runs a unique scheme that most closely resembles a college 3-3-5, and he’s been creating a ton of pressure through the first three weeks with the likes of Derrick Brown, Morgan Fox, Haason Reddick, and Brian Burns. In fact, the Panthers are tied for first in pass rush win rate.
Their fierce pass rush has forced rookies Wilson and Mills into making bad throws and prompted Saints quarterback Jameis Winston to fall back into his reckless tendencies from his Buccaneers days. What this defense hasn’t seen yet is a quarterback who thrives under pressure, who can make quick reads, stand in the pocket, and deliver a strike to an open man. What this defense hasn’t seen yet is somebody like Dak Prescott.
It would be fair to say that Prescott is playing his best ball ever right now. Through three games, Dak leads the league in completion percentage and is second in completion percentage over expectation (CPOE). Basically, he’s so accurate that he’s completing passes he shouldn’t be. On top of that, only four quarterbacks are getting the ball out faster than him right now. The Cowboys’ dominant victory over the Eagles showed how rich Dak is in terms of pass-catching weapons, and against a secondary missing two of its starters, it seems like Prescott is primed to expose this defense’s weaknesses.
Speaking of exposing weaknesses, Sam Darnold has been playing markedly better now that he’s not following Adam Gase’s orders. He’s currently ranked sixth in QBR and 11th in EPA, and his 3.6 CPOE is easily a career high. But some of Darnold’s worst tendencies - most notably, holding the ball too long and then not being able to hold onto the ball at all - are still there. His average 2.85 seconds to throw is the eighth-highest figure in the league and while he’s only thrown one interception, Darnold has also fumbled four times in just three games.
Now he’s facing a Cowboys defense which leads the league in takeaways and he is playing without McCaffrey, who has become a favorite target of Darnold’s on early downs in an effort to stay ahead of the chains. In fact, 14 of McCaffrey’s 17 targets have come on first or second down. Rookie Chuba Hubbard will fill McCaffrey’s role, with veteran Royce Freeman spelling him, but taking away such a dynamic weapon that Darnold has come to rely on could be disastrous, especially in their first game without him.
Another looming problem for Darnold and the Panthers offense is their offensive line, which ranks 26th in run block win rate and dead last in pass block win rate. With Darnold’s penchant for holding onto the ball, it’s only a matter of time until the pressure becomes unbearable for him. And with the Cowboys’ pass rush seemingly awakening against Philadelphia, Darnold could be in for a rough day.
Many will look at this game and predict a close one, and it very well could be. But the Panthers have some weaknesses that have yet to be exposed, and the Cowboys have the talent and direction to do just that. If they play like they did on Monday night, the Cowboys have the potential to be looking at a second straight double-digit victory.
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