In the days leading up to the Cowboys’ bout against the undefeated Panthers, nobody really knew what to make of Matt Rhule’s team. They hadn’t exactly played the toughest schedule to get to 3-0, but they had won each of those games with efficient offense and stifling defense. Sam Darnold was playing the best football of his career, and the Panthers were equally efficient at stopping both the run and the pass.
Through the first half of the game Sunday, it sure seemed like these Panthers were legit. The pass rush never got home on a sack, but they were harassing Dak Prescott regularly. For what feels like the first time in ages, Prescott actually finished with a negative completion percentage over expectation (CPOE), largely due to all of his hurried throws and balls that were batted down at the line.
The Cowboys had engineered two touchdown drives, but neither was done so in convincing fashion. The first drive was saved when Prescott recovered a low snap on first and 20 and miraculously ran a 15-yard gain. The second drive should have ended with a Dalton Schultz fumble, but poor officiating saved Dallas. The rest of their drives had ended with punts, none of them lasting more than three minutes. Meanwhile, the defense got gashed by Darnold several times, and it resulted in the Panthers holding a 14-13 lead at halftime.
It wasn’t necessarily that the Cowboys were playing bad. They were just being outmatched by the Panthers. But when Mike McCarthy brought his team into the locker room, everyone knew adjustments had to be made. The Cowboys had been too timid in the first half, while the Panthers had played with the bully mentality they had won their first three games with. It was time for the Cowboys to start dictating the game.
So Kellen Moore got together with Prescott and the offense, while Dan Quinn talked to his defense about the way things had gone in the first half. As they do every week, game plans were tweaked and adjustments were made. And when the Cowboys came back onto the field, the entire game was about to be flipped on its head.
It really started when the Panthers missed a 54-yard field goal on their opening drive of the third quarter. That gave Dallas the ball at about midfield, setting them up nicely. A few runs from Ezekiel Elliott moved the chains twice, and then Prescott went deep to Amari Cooper, who was isolated on the recently acquired C.J. Henderson, for a touchdown.
Quinn’s defense forced a three-and-out and gave Dak the ball back quickly. Two quick passes to CeeDee Lamb moved the chains before Zeke burst through a hole and ate up 47 yards on one play. After that, a quick flip to Schultz was easy money for the Cowboys’ second touchdown of the quarter.
We all know what happens next: Trevon Diggs. He picks off Darnold and gives the ball right back to the suddenly red-hot offense. It’s a similar attack yet again: two runs for Tony Pollard before Prescott goes deep, this time to Cedrick Wilson, for a touchdown. Another Diggs interception turns into a field goal for the Cowboys on the first play of the fourth quarter. Suddenly, this game was flipped from a one-point Cowboys deficit to a commanding 22-point lead.
The secret was figuring out how to time their aggression. The first half had almost functioned as the first round of a boxing match, with both sides feeling each other out. But after that, the superior team figured things out. Offensively, the Cowboys had enjoyed some success running the ball in the first half, and they continued to give run-heavy looks before calling the deep shots, which the Panthers’ eager defense bit on time and time again.
On defense, it was a matter of figuring out when to send the house at Darnold. Dropping back into coverage and just rushing four didn’t work for Dallas in the first half, so Quinn started unleashing Micah Parsons and even Jayron Kearse and Leighton Vander Esch in blitzes. In the first half, Dallas had blitzed on just four of Darnold’s 19 dropbacks. Quinn cranked it up to seven blitzes on ten dropbacks in the second half. Not only did it translate to sacks, but Darnold was clearly flustered, and Diggs took advantage of it.
In both cases, it was a clear case of the Cowboys identifying what wasn’t working and figuring out a way to make it work during the halftime break. How many times under the previous regime were there complaints about a lack of adjustments? That’s clearly no longer the case. McCarthy has the right people running things in Dallas, and they all understand the value of adjustment football. And with the Cowboys flustered at halftime against an undefeated team, this staff that McCarthy has assembled did what was necessary to not only get the win, but do so in a truly dominant way.