Predict the Cowboys’ Week 4 game against the Carolina Panthers
An undefeated Carolina Panthers The team, led by their defense and improved quarterback play, enter AT&T Stadium to face a Cowboys quarterback returning from a devastating injury. That was the story when these two teams faced off in 2015. While the names on the back of the shirts have changed, the situation is essentially the same.
Admittedly, this Carolina team is significantly less intimidating than the 15-1 Panthers six years ago. On the one hand, the Panthers faced the second easiest program in three weeks. But they deserve credit for starting 3-0, especially since a team everyone had written off before the start of the season.
As one of this year’s most surprising storylines, the Cowboys now face a legitimate test with a team led by Sam Darnold. So what should Dallas expect in their next matchup?
The Cowboys Offense
Ahead of this week, the Panthers defense allowed 30 points in total. To put that in perspective, the Cardinals offense has scored over 30 points in each of its first three games. There’s no getting around it; the Panthers’ defense was dominant.
However, starting the season playing against Davis Mills, Jameis Winston and Zach Wilson isn’t necessarily a defense’s worst nightmare. Since this is the first time Carolina will be able to prove their defense is elite, they will come out with a chip on their shoulder.
While it was fun to watch Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard demoralize a ground defense, you shouldn’t expect more of that in week four. In terms of EPA per game allowed, the Carolina Panthers are the best team in the league to stop the race.
Carolina allowed just 45 rushing yards per game in three weeks, the lowest in the NFL by a significant margin. The 2.6 yards per carry that the Panthers are giving up now would have been 1.2 yards less than the top team by that measure last year.
If you need more proof of their ability to contain opposing running backs, look no further than what the Panthers did to Alvin Kamara. Carrying the ball eight times, Kamara racked up a total of five yards on the ground. Quite simply, this game relies on Dak Prescott’s ability to shoulder the burden.
The good news for the Cowboys is that the Panthers can be exploited in the air, especially during the first downs. Despite playing against the quarterbacks mentioned above, the Panthers only rank as the eighth best team passing the EPA per play allowed in the first downs.
This plays to Dallas’ strengths, as only three teams were more successful than the Cowboys in the passing game on the first and second downs. Expect a similar game plan to Week 1, where Dallas will “run through the air” throwing up drag routes and screens to set up short-haul conversions.
Dak is going to have to come out ready to play. The Panthers have allowed a total of six points in the first half this year. Again, maybe that’s because they haven’t faced an elite quarterback yet. But if Dallas doesn’t set the tone early, the game could spiral out of control with a Panthers defense looking to prove itself.
To win this game, the Cowboys will need to pitch over 40 times. With the Panthers enjoying the fifth best speed pass according to Pro Football Focus, Dak must find his receiver and get the ball out quickly. Establish the pass, and the Cowboys offense shouldn’t be a problem.
Defending the Cowboys
Don’t look now, but after playing Tom Brady, Justin Herbert and an improved Jalen Hurts, the Cowboys have the eleventh best defense in PFF ranking. It’s either a setup for a bitter disappointment or Dan Quinn earned his paycheck.
Equally heartbreaking is what Sam Darnold was able to do with this Panthers offense. In twelve games last year, Darnold threw over 250 yards in one go. He’s eclipsed that total in every game in three weeks this year.
However, Sam Darnold is not a gunslinger. Of the 32 starting quarterbacks, Darnold is on average the eighth lowest target depth.
The Panthers won using a conservative attack. With the sixth most rushed attempts in the league, paired with passes near the line of scrimmage, Carolina is playing to avoid a mistake. Considering the Panthers have returned the ball twice this year and have only been sacked five times, it seems to be working. However, as Cowboys fans know, this Jason Garrett-style “avoidance game” can be stopped.
Currently, the Cowboys are ranked eighth on the best teams to stop the race on the EPA’s first practice per game cleared. With Christian McCaffrey out and rookie Chuba Hubbard taking responsibility on the field, Dallas must stop the rushed attack on the first and second downs.
By doing this, you are setting up longer conversion situations for Sam Darnold. As good as Darnold has been, getting him thrown into the field will likely result in errors. With Dallas averaging the most turnovers in the NFL, that will force Carolina to play in the hand of the Cowboys.
However, Dallas has yet to be field tested. In the first three weeks, opponents of the Cowboys average 15 ground attempts per game, the lowest in the NFL. Considering Dallas allowing 4.7 yards per attempt, it’s puzzling that the teams haven’t tried to take the lead on the field.
The Panthers won’t pass as often as the Cowboys’ last three opponents. Even without McCaffrey, Carolina will show up. Micah Parsons, Osa Odighizuwa, Leighton Vander-Esch and Jaylon Smith will need to set the tone early.
If the Cowboys’ defensive interior and linebacker body can force Darnold into long-range situations, Dallas will be able to produce turnovers. From there, the game is almost won for the Cowboys. However, if they allow the Panthers to establish ground play, it turns into a toss. This game hinges on the defense’s ability to take advantage of Carolina’s weaker backfield.
Training and special teams
Very few people are talking about the Cowboys’ special teams performance last week, which it should be. As long as John Fassel and his team are well trained and doing their job, no one will be discussing special teams.
However, against an undefeated Panthers team, special teams must again be a factor of non-compliance. Carolina is averaging 21 yards per return on kickoffs and eight yards per return on punters, which essentially means there’s no one the Cowboys should be afraid to give a shot to. kick.
The only asterisk in the special teams performance last week was Greg Zuerlein’s missed PAT. Since joining the Cowboys in early 2020, 31 kickers have a better extra point percentage than Zuerlein, with a minimum of ten attempts. During that same span, Zuerlein is also behind 26 kickers in field goal percentage.
Now is not the time to discuss switch to kicker, but things need to change quickly. The Cowboys cannot drop points in the kicking game and expect to win, regardless of the opponent. If the Panthers’ defense is close to the level of the first three weeks, the missing kicks will result in a loss.
Complete tackles in the open field, get out of the end zone to prevent any possibility of a return, make easy baskets and avoid penalties that will support the offense. While that’s easier said than done, Cowboys fans should look forward to another week where we don’t need to discuss special teams.
Coaching side, we will see how Mike McCarthy manages the clock. In the last seconds of Chargers match of the second week, then at the end of the first half against Philadelphia, McCarthy made dizzying decisions.
The management of the clock in the Chargers game was questionable, and you can debate whether it was the right choice or not. But there is no reasonable explanation for what happened in the third week. However, the Cowboys won both games so that didn’t impact the outcome. Hopefully McCarthy has learned from those mistakes and will lead to a clean game on Sunday.
Before the start of the season, few would have assumed that Darnold vs. Prescott would be a convincing match. The well-performing Panthers give the Cowboys another chance to prove they can beat an above average team.
One of the best attacks in three weeks faces one of the best defenses. This game will likely be more competitive than last Monday night, which is not a bold statement.
The plots are defined; now is the time for the Cowboys to perform.
Chance of Cowboys to win: 52.7%
Final score: Dallas Cowboys 28, Carolina Panthers 23