Back in 2015, the Panthers started perfectly but were passed over as serious contenders for much of the first half of the season due a perceived easy schedule. While the Panthers schedule certainly hasn’t been the hardest in the NFL through three games of the 2021 season, the Panthers are once again in a situation where their record is more impressive than the esteem in which they are being held suggest.
Back in 2015, it was a signature home win against a favored Packers team that ultimately saw them leap from plucky overachievers into genuine contenders and, while the season is still very young, an away win this week against the 2-1 Cowboys could have a similar effect.
The Cowboys only loss came to the reigning champions on the opening night of the season and, even then, they made it close. They have one of the best offenses in the NFL lead by one of the top quarterbacks with elite talents at running back and receiver with a defense that has been one of the best in the NFL at taking the ball away so far this season. What’s more, the Panthers will be on the road, without their offensive centerpiece, with a depleted secondary and a patchy offensive line.
In other words, if the Panthers can win this game without suffering any other major injuries it is hard to imagine that they won’t put the NFL on notice, especially with a number of their missing pieces expected to return over the coming weeks.
So, with that in mind, what are the keys for the Panthers went it comes to knocking off the NFC East leading Cowboys?
Take The Run Game Away
The Panthers are probably not going to be able to shut-out the Cowboys in the first half like they did to the Jets and Saints (and nearly to the Texans as well), as it is going to be a tough ask for them to take away all the weapons that Dak has at his disposal. However, what they cannot allow to happen is for the Cowboys to be able to use all their offensive toys as they wish, constantly keeping the Panthers on the back foot.
Fortunately, the Panthers enter the game as the top-ranked run defense in the NFL, aided by the domineering presence of Derrick Brown and DaQuan Jones up front, they have been able to hold opponents well under three yards-per-carry, and under fifty for the game. If they can get anywhere close to that level of performance against the Cowboys then that will force them into throwing the ball almost every down, something that will certainly play into the hands of the Panthers edge rushers.
It is also worth noting that, while Zeke had a big game against the Eagles, this is not the Cowboys offensive line of old that consistently gains several yards before contact every play. That doesn’t mean that this will be easy for the Panthers but, if they are able to make the Cowboys a pass-first team, then they give themselves a chance.
Turnovers Even More Important To Avoid Than Normal
It is easy to say, “don’t throw interceptions”, it’s also quite obvious, but what isn’t quite so obvious is just how important turnovers, and in particular interceptions, have been to the Cowboys’ defense through three games.
Through three games, the Cowboys’ defense ranks 15th in the NFL in completion percentage allowed, 22nd in yards-per-completion, 27th in yards-per-attempt in the run game and 31st in sack percentage, none of which are especially positive numbers for a defense, but what has allowed them to make up for that so far is that they rank 3rd in the NFL in interception percentage and 1st in total turnovers.
This is not a new phenomenon, there have been numerous defenses in the past that have lived and died by the turnover, but what this does mean is that if the Panthers can take the plays that are there and not try and force plays then there will be opportunities to move the ball on the Cowboys’ defense.
It might not always be super exciting to watch, but this is a game where playing it a little on the safe side might be the order of the day.
Don’t Be Afraid To Play Man
It’s easy to look at the weapons the Cowboys have and conclude that a defense would be best served by playing zone. After all, look at what happened last season when the Panthers tried to match up with the Bucs’ receivers in man coverage. Even without Jaycee Horn injured, it would seem like a risky proposition.
Well, yes, the risks of playing man coverage are higher, but the rewards are greater still. While CeeDee Lamb has been productive so far this season, his strength has never been in his ability to win as a route runner but rather in what he can do after the catch and how he is able to create receptions at the catch point. Neither of those things are going to be countered effectively by zone coverage or by man, and he’s likely to have a couple of big plays whatever you do, but if the Panthers can use their big corner to match him in man coverage, then they at least have a chance of taking away the big plays he is able to generate after the catch on easy receptions against zone.
This doesn’t mean the Panthers should play man every snap, and if they do, they are likely going to have to help whoever matches up with Amari Cooper, but zone defense alone isn’t going to slow the Cowboys down.
Do The Panthers Have A Run Game Without McCaffrey?
The Panthers run game so far this season has been something of a disappointment, and certainly won’t be helped by the absence of Christian McCaffrey for the next week or two. This will unquestionably push a lot of the emphasis on Chuba Hubbard the Panthers’ other remaining running backs, but the offensive line and Joe Brady also need to step-up to the challenge as well.
Though Taylor Moton has once again played at a high level, and Matt Paradis has been at least solid, the rest of the Panthers’ offensive line is one big question mark, something that is made all the more difficult by Pat Elflein’s stint on IR and John Miller being listed as questionable for the game.
While the Panthers can, and probably should, look to some of their younger options if things don’t improve, they also need to find a way to run the ball without the offensive line playing well. This group doesn’t have to suddenly become an elite unit but if Joe Brady can find a way to engineer some consistent yardage with design, then that will take a lot of pressure off of Sam Darnold.
They don’t need to be amazing, but things can’t continue to be as McCaffrey-dependent as they have been thus far.
Turnovers Should Start To Come
The fact that the Panthers rank towards the middle of the pack in turnovers through three weeks could hardly be seen as some major issue but, given how remarkable they have been in almost every statistical category on defense, they would hope that the turnovers start to come as well.
This is one of those things where the Panthers haven’t done anything especially wrong, but the luck just hasn’t fallen their way thus far. They could have been slightly more effective when it comes to stripping the ball in the tackle but, more than anything else they just have to wait for the opportunities to present themselves.
Turnovers aren’t stats that work very well on small sample sizes, even the best teams have maybe two or three a week, and if the Panthers keep playing like they have been then they should come, but it would be especially helpful if that started this week against the Cowboys.
As good as the Saints have been at times, this is going to be the biggest test for the Panthers so far this season. The Cowboys’ have one of the best offenses in the league, and the Panthers are going to have to stop it without Jaycee Horn, Juston Burris, Yetur Gross-Matos and Myles Hartsfield.
If they can come back from Dallas with a win, then this will not only continue the Panthers’ hot start to the season but will also be a signal that this isn’t some plucky young team but a genuine contender.
(Top photo via Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers)