Previously we broke down the offense for this week’s upcoming game between the Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers. Now we dive back into the position battleground, this time looking at how the defensive positions and special teams stack up against each other.
It’s tough to poke too many holes in the Cowboys defensive performance last week against the New York Giants, and that’s certainly the case for the defensive line. Someone must have read last week’s article about Sam Williams needing to get more defensive snaps, because last week he got exactly that. He played 27 defensive snaps last week (which is the most in a game since Week 1), and he totaled one sack, three pressures, two tackles with two defensive stops. Dante Fowler and DeMarcus Lawrence both had sacks on consecutive plays to start the second half. Fowler had an incredible day leading the team in pressures and made two additional defensive stops. Dorance Armstrong also had a good day and was important on running plays as much as passing plays. He led the team in defensive stops but also registered a sack last week.
The best player against the run however was our very own rookie nose tackle, Mazi Smith. He made plays early in the game and was extremely effective at stopping Saquon Barkley during the game. His stop on third down to drag Barkley down at the line of scrimmage is an excellent example of what he will become given more time and opportunity. He led the defensive line in tackles last week.
This week the defensive line faces a team that has allowed the fifth-most sacks and is seriously hampering their rookie quarterback. In terms of projecting this defensive unit at stopping the run this week, well they just held Barkley to 66 rushing yards, the second-lowest total for Barkley this season (the lowest coming Week 1). The Carolina Panthers average just 75 rushing yards a game in their last three contests, that’s the second-lowest in the league, and in those three games they scored zero rushing touchdowns.
Leading the Panthers in sacks is the Florida State standout Brian Burns. He is questionable however to play this weekend and missed their last game due to being in concussion protocol. Their next best pass rusher, Yetur Gross-Matos, is on injured reserve, so this leaves the majority of the pressure coming from inside with their defensive tackles. Derrick Brown does the best at the tackle position, but he’s hasn’t registered a sack since Week 1. Either way, this Panthers defensive line is struggling to get sacks. In fact, in their last three games they have averaged one sack per game, which is the lowest rate over that time. As for stopping the run, they rank seventh-worst in the NFL and just allowed the Chicago Bears to rush for 133 yards against them last week.
Damone Clark/Markquese Bell
Frankie Luvu/Kamu Gruiger-Hill
Both Markquese Bell and Damone Clark had solid games last week. They both made two tackles and one defensive stop each. They both have the ability to keep the Panthers running backs from breaking loose, and currently the Panthers backs are struggling to be productive. The sad news on Leighton Vander Esch came in this week, he’s been shutdown for the season. Based on some reports, his future in the NFL is in question due to his history of neck injuries. We hope Vander Esch makes a full recovery and we see him again soon.
While the Cowboys have concerns with one of their key linebackers being injured, the Panthers linebacker corps has had a nightmare when it comes to injury. Since the season started, the Panthers have placed six linebackers on injured reserve, an alarming number. Playing with an odd front means the Panthers utilize their linebackers to help in the pass rush and run a lot of blitzes. This means their leading linebacker, Frankie Luvu, leads all linebackers between the two teams in sacks and pressures. Luvu is second on the team in sacks and first on the team in tackles and is having a productive season. The issue with the Panthers starting linebackers is tackling, they are lacking technique and ability. Both Luvu and Kamu Grugier-Hill have combined for 21 missed tackles this season, one of the highest tandems in the NFL. Damone Clark and Markquese Bell combined for one missed tackle.
The way both Dallas linebackers played last week inspires confidence and excitement on an otherwise sad week of news regarding the position. They both played better last week than their Panthers counterparts and will look to have an easier day based on the teams defensive line competition. Finding the winner here, Clark and Luvu is a close competition, but Bell far outplays Grugier-Hill. Win goes to Dallas.
DaRon Bland ranks second in the league in interceptions and is having a wildly productive season. What makes the Bland situation exciting is the prospect of him and Trevon Diggs playing together next season. It’s truly a gift to have two lockdown corners with huge turnover potential on the roster, and that is a rare commodity in the NFL. This week Bland and Stephon Gilmore face a pass-catching group that are producing the sixth-least receiving yards in the league. To add to the Panthers concerns facing this Cowboys defensive back unit, it allows the second-fewest passing yards per game, has the fourth-most interceptions, and last week allowed only allowed 86 passing yards against the Giants. Jourdan Lewis had another rough day, but it was Nahshon Wright that gave up the most yards last week, seems his development is far behind expectation.
As for the Cowboys safeties, they did their job last week to what was expected against the Giants receivers. They allowed five receptions off seven targets last week, for only 23 yards.
The Panthers defensive back situation is just as concerning as their linebacker situation. They have a lot of injuries, with the most critical being starting cornerback Jaycee Horn. He’s set to come back from injured reserve this week, which leaves him questionable to play. Their other starting corner, C.J. Henderson is also questionable to play this weekend as he’s in concussion protocol. Safety Jeremy Chinn is on injured reserve after blowing a quadricep.
So that leaves them playing with rookies and guys they picked up off the free agent market. One of those guys is an old friend of Dallas, Xavier Woods. He joined the team this year and will be facing his old team this weekend as the starting strong safety. Donte Jackson is having a nice season and is the team’s only defensive back playing this week that was on the Panthers roster last year. He leads the team in pass breakups, but also leads the team in passing yards allowed and has a 116.1 passer rating allowed this year, the worst rating in his career.
It’s hard to be pessimistic about the Cowboys defensive back unit since they are playing well, but their relative competition last week wasn’t going to test them much. The Panthers faced a Chicago Bears offense last week which isn’t exactly deemed potent, and with the exception of Jackson, they failed to impress. Once you add both teams receiving threats to the mix, it’s fair to say the Panthers have a tougher battle.
This segment seems to be repeating itself when we talk about Brandon Aubrey, and that’s not a bad thing. Aubrey had the duty of kicking seven extra points last week, and he didn’t miss. He never came out to attempt a field goal, which is a good sign the offense was winning. But Aubrey is having an amazing season so far, his only miss was off an extra point in Week 1. Only Aubrey and Harrison Butker are perfect on the year on field goal attempts.
As for the Panthers kicker, Eddie Pineiro ranks 20th among starting kickers in field goal accuracy, at 84%. He’s missed three field goals this year and one extra point.
Bryan Anger remains one of the better punters this year. He’s averaging 49 yards per punt which ranks sixth-best. Jonny Hekker is punting for Carolina, so expect a reunion down on the field with John Fassel after the game. Unfortunately, Hekker is having his struggles this year and ranks 21st in average yards per punt, and he ranks tenth in punt attempts this year.
We will have to wait and find out if KaVontae Turpin returns this week, he missed last week’s game with a shoulder injury. If they decide to keep Turpin out this week, then Deuce Vaughn will come back on punt return duties. He made three return attempts last week for nine yards. His speed and agility was fun to watch when he had the ball. For the Panthers, they use ex-Minnesota wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette on punt return duties. He ranks sixth in punt return yards and has run one in for a touchdown this year.
The Cowboys win this battle on special teams, two out of three.
Which team has the better defense?
This poll is closed