The Cowboys offense has been running red-hot the last few weeks, with Dak Prescott putting up some of the best performances of his career while leading his team to some incredible offensive outputs. Now, they travel to take on a Carolina Panthers defense that has quite a few playmakers on that side of the ball.
Defense has long been a staple for this franchise. Under Ron Rivera, the Panthers frequently won on the strength of their defense. And while the Matt Rhule era rarely featured much winning, the defense usually held up their end of the bargain. That was expected to continue when new head coach Frank Reich hired Ejiro Evero, who had just finished a great first season as a coordinator with the Broncos.
Evero has long been considered a rising star in the coaching world, and his first stint as a coordinator showed why. From a scheme standpoint, Evero is a mix of two of the most senior defensive minds in football: Vic Fangio and Dom Capers.
Evero’s second NFL coaching gig ever came with the 49ers as part of Jim Harbaugh’s inaugural staff. There, he worked under Fangio, whose defense was routinely one of the best in the NFL. Evero never rose above the rank of a defensive assistant while in San Francisco, but he used that opportunity to become very familiar with Fangio’s two-deep safety scheme that has since taken the league by storm.
After Evero left the 49ers, a year after Harbaugh and Fangio exited, he spent a season on Mike McCarthy’s staff in Green Bay. The defensive coordinator at the time was Capers, a seasoned coach know for his aggressive, hybrid defensive fronts and exotic blitz packages. Later, when Evero became the defensive coordinator in Denver, he brought in Capers as a senior defensive assistant. Capers now holds that same role in Carolina.
What does this all mean? Well, Evero’s defense is a bit of a cross between the two approaches. He’s taken the best of both schemes and managed to mesh them together to create a rather sound defensive system. True to the Fangio school of defense, Evero runs a lot of zone coverage - nearly a 70/30 split - with two deep safeties aimed at limiting the big plays. However, Evero is much more aggressive than Fangio and many of his disciples, with a 29.2% blitz rate that ranks ninth in the league; that’s the Capers influence.
The results have been mostly positive, though not exceptional, in Carolina. The Panthers are 11th in yards per play but 30th in points per game. A lot of that has to do with how bad the offense has been this year, as the Panthers defense has the fourth-worst average starting field position. That’s led to them ranking 26th in both defensive DVOA and EPA/play allowed.
The Panthers have some really good players across their defense, most notably edge rusher Brian Burns. He has six sacks and 21 pressures on the year and, despite missing last week’s game with a concussion, is expected to play this week. There’s also linebacker Frankie Luvu, a chess piece for the defense who leads all off-ball linebackers in sacks with five while also having one of the higher run stop rates.
Speaking of, the run defense has been a major weakness for Evero’s defense this year. That’s a common theme for Fangio schemes, as they leave a light box that’s susceptible to the run. Evero’s high blitz rate has further complicated the run defense, as teams have been rewarded with wide open space to run if they can just get past the line of scrimmage. In fact, Carolina is allowing the fifth-most second-level yards per carry and the seventh-most open-field yards per carry. All in all, they rank 31st in run defense DVOA.
The secondary grades out much better, at 16th in pass defense DVOA, though they haven’t been tested a whole lot due to the poor run defense. In fact, only the Cowboys and Browns defenses have seen fewer pass attempts this year, and the Panthers are surrendering considerably more yards than those two. Cornerbacks C.J. Henderson (injured) and Donte Jackson are both giving up a passer rating of 116+ on the year, while Luvu is allowing the eighth-highest passer rating among all off-ball linebackers.
The secondary has been susceptible, though they aren’t getting tested all that often. That’s likely to change this week, as the Cowboys offense has been one of the most pass-happy offenses over the last three weeks. They’ve also faced different variants of the Fangio scheme in three of their last four games, and the offense has fared well in each of those contests.
The most significant difference in Evero’s defense is the higher use of blitzes, which also plays well into the Cowboys’ strengths. Prescott leads the league in completion percentage when blitzed and is tied for the second most yards per attempt. He’s historically been great against the blitz, and that’s been no different this year.
Evero is a savvy defensive mind, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him come up with some tweaks this week to catch Prescott and this offense off guard. Still, the Cowboys have all the firepower to attack this defense in ways they haven’t really been tested yet this season. The advantage, at least on paper, clearly goes to Dallas.