After trouncing Philadelphia on Monday Night Football, the Cowboys staked their early-season claim as the best team in the NFC East and as a playoff contender in the NFC. Now Dallas looks to build on that with the 3-0 Panthers coming to town.
This is one of those early-season games in which you find out a lot about Dallas. Are the Cowboys complacent? Will they rest on their laurels after back-to-back big wins as some teams in the past have? Or will Dallas keep its foot on the gas pedal and take care of business against one of the hotter teams in the NFC?
With the way the schedule is shaping up, the Cowboys have a massive opportunity to put a ton of distance between themselves and the rest of the NFC East. Barring catastrophic injury, Dallas figures to be favored in all or almost all of its next six games: vs. CAR, vs. NYG, @ NE, BYE, @ MIN, vs. DEN, vs. ATL. After Atlanta comes a road trip to Kansas City.
Compare that to Washington’s next six games: @ ATL, vs. NO, vs. KC, @ GB, @ DEN, BYE, vs. TB. While we’re at it, check out the Eagles’ next six games: vs. KC, @ CAR, vs. TB, @ LV, @ DET, vs. LAC.
You get the point. Dallas can put a fork in the NFC East early in the season and it begins with this next stretch of football leading up to Kansas City. Here’s what the Panthers will be rolling out on Sunday:
When the Cowboys have the ball:
It is well documented what a high level Dak Prescott is playing at right now. Only three quarterbacks have completed at least 77 percent of passes while still throwing for 800-plus yards in the first three games of the season: Tom Brady in 2007, Drew Brees in 2018, and Prescott in 2021.
His surgical approach to picking apart defenses through three games has been incredible and he is playing at a higher level than he ever has. Panthers head coach Matt Rhule had some high praise and lofty comparisons for Prescott. Here’s the full quote:
“He’s superb. He calls the game at the line of scrimmage. He’s getting the ball out of his hand. He’s the second-fastest guy in the NFL right now from snap to throw, which is emblematic of a quarterback who knows exactly where the ball is going to go versus the defense, who is on the same page with his receivers, who is getting in the right plays versus the right coverages, who is making sure that he’s protected. … It’s like watching Peyton Manning, it’s like watching Drew Brees call the game at the line of scrimmage. I think what Dak’s doing right now is unbelievably impressive.”
Rhule invoked some pretty impressive names when comparing Prescott’s game to some of the greats. This feels like a game where Prescott is going to prove Rhule right and shine against Carolina’s defense. Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow has them playing very well early on, as the Panthers have yet to give up more than 14 points in a game. Carolina is pressuring the quarterback on 45 percent of drop backs which is easily the highest in the league and Snow is blitzing at the third-highest rate in the league.
Dallas has the fix for the Panthers’ pressure and blitzing: Dak Prescott. Carolina has yet to face a quarterback near the caliber of Prescott, as the three victims of the Carolina defense are Zach Wilson, Jameis Winston, and Davis Mills. Prescott has been fantastic against the blitz, and that may be an understatement. Prescott has been blitzed on 34.7 percent of his drop backs, which is the most of any other qualifying quarterback, but has still thrown the most touchdowns against the blitz of any quarterback. He is also completing 68.3 percent of his passes against the blitz.
We have seen Kellen Moore‘s gameplan evolve from week to week. Against Tampa Bay it was to not even bother running the ball. Against Los Angeles and Philadelphia, Prescott made a lot of plays but leaned on the run game more and based that on the looks the defense was showing. Lighter box? Run with one of two dynamic backs. Stack the box or blitz? Prescott picks you apart with his weapons.
This figures to be another big Prescott week with how much Carolina likes to get after the passer. With Jaycee Horn out with a broken foot, Carolina doesn’t have much else in the back end. Horn had a 28.5 percent completion percentage and zero passer rating when targeted. Donte Jackson is the next man up, and he has surrendered a 63.2 percent completion percentage and a 98.4 passer rating. The Panthers did acquire 2020 first-round pick C.J. Henderson from the Jaguars for a third-round pick this week, but in his first week with the team, who knows how Henderson will look.
Dallas’ offensive line will have its hands full with a defensive front that leads the league in sacks and pressures. Haason Reddick leads the team in pressures and is tied with Myles Garrett for the league lead in sacks with six. He is partnered with one of the league’s most underrated pass rushers in Brian Burns. One potential problem area for Dallas is Derrick Brown. Tyler Biadasz has had a bit of a rough go through three weeks, and it doesn’t get any easier. Vita Vea and Javon Hargreave had their way with him and Snow will obviously look to exploit that.
When the Panthers have the ball:
It appears that the New York Jets are really where quarterbacks go to die. Sam Darnold is having a bit of a renaissance now that he is out of New York. His two games with 300-plus passing yards already tie his career high for an entire season. He is PFF’s second-highest graded quarterback under pressure, which is the polar-opposite of his days in New York. Darnold is coming off a great performance in Houston in which he completed 67 percent of his passes for three touchdowns and had a 95.7 QBR.
Things may be a bit tougher for Darnold this week as the Panthers will be without superstar running back Christian McCaffrey. He will still have star wideout D.J. Moore, who is off to a great start with 22 catches for 285 yards. Joe Brady has been doing great things for Darnold, but the offensive line has not. Carolina’s run game has been inefficient, averaging 3.4 yards per carry and Darnold has been sacked six times and hit 16 times.
This has potential to be another big Micah Parsons pass-rushing performance given Carolina’s struggles up front. Aside from Taylor Moton and Matt Paradis, the Panthers are looking at some combination of John Miller, Cam Erving, and Dennis Daley to fill out the rest of the offensive line. Osa Odighizuwa and Parsons have been dominant up front, so this is a big opportunity for those two.
One thing that has made Dallas’ defense incredibly successful so far (besides takeaways): they’re playing fast. If you’ve been wondering to yourself why it seems like the Dallas defense is playing faster, its because they literally are! Per Next Gen Stats, Dallas has 10 players who have reached a maximum speed above 19 miles per hour. Dallas had just three through Week 3 last season.
The Cowboys are again thin up front and aren’t expecting to get anyone that missed the Philadelphia game back in time for Carolina, but given how well the defensive front played against the Eagles against a much better offensive line, Randy Gregory and the rest of the defensive linemen could wreak some havoc on Sam Darnold.
This is an opportunity for another early statement from Dallas. Carolina is playing well and is coming into Dallas feeling good. I have my reservations on how good the Panthers actually are, and this win may not look as great by season’s end, but there is a lot of opportunity for the Cowboys to take advantage of this week. I think Prescott and Moore are so in sync right now that Dallas can handle Carolina’s chaotic scheme, in a similar fashion to the Tampa Bay game. As Jake Kemp said in his D Magazine piece on the Dallas offense, this isn’t an offense that “takes what the defense gives you,” but rather “makes the defense decide how it wants to be beaten.”
I think the Cowboys will have plenty of success through the air especially without Horn and Prescott will continue to dissect blitzes. The Cowboys will take advantage of a poor offensive front, and the Dallas defense will do enough.
Nate’s Take: Dallas 31 Carolina 21
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