The Cowboys have to put the disappointment of the Baltimore game behind them and move forward to a new and different challenge that awaits them in Charlotte this week.
The Carolina Panthers, offensively, are a very interesting squad on a couple of different fronts. When you break them down, you find yourself totally focused on what quarterback Cam Newton is doing with the football. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski is clearly playing to the strengths of Newton: deceptive ball handling, reads and physical ability.
For lack of a better term, the Panthers run a college offense, one that is full of read options, straight options and crack tosses. It's when the Panthers get behind that Newton becomes more about working the ball down the field to wide receivers Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, and tight end Greg Olsen.
When Newton has the ball in his hands, good and bad things can happen. You just really don't know. Against the Giants, I saw him rip the ball to Smith from the right hash all the way across the field to the left sideline on a rope. He has complete and total faith in the strength of his arm. The ball really comes out of his hand well. Of course, there are times when he is deadly accurate, but then there are others when he struggles. In that same Giants game, he had LaFell open on a crossing route, the defender trailing, and the pass was too hard and high, falling incomplete.
The Panthers coaches not only put a great deal of faith in his ability to make the right reads, but also to make smart decisions. There were times when he made some questionable pitches on option plays where the ball was dangerously close to being fumbled.
What Chudzinski is really trying to do with this offense is make you defend the entire field, and with Newton, he can do just that. When the Panthers do throw the ball, his main weapon is the veteran Smith. I have always enjoyed watching Smith play because there isn't a catch that he can't make, and it doesn't matter where he is on the field. Newton likes to get him the ball on the move and allow him to make plays one-on-one.
Smith is a quarterback's best friend because he understands coming back to the ball and sideline awareness. For a shorter receiver, he is outstanding in the air, adjusting to throws, and he is not afraid to push off when you play him tight. He truly is a game breaker in his ability to take short passes and make them large gains.
Newton also likes to throw the ball to Olsen when he needs a sure catch. The tight end is extremely consistent with his route-running and has great hands as well. He'll line up all over the formation, much like Dennis Pitta did last week for the Ravens. Last time that Olsen faced the Cowboys, while with the Bears, he had a huge game.
On the offensive line, Jordan Gross has been a longtime starter at left tackle. He's not going to be one of those guys that hammers you in the running game, but will use his hands and feet to hold off his man. If he does have problems, it's when rushers go hard inside on him. But, Gross is an outstanding athlete, and in this offense, you'll see him have to adjust his blocks to allow his man to be optioned off. He just does a really nice job of playing on his feet.
At left guard, rookie Amini Silatolu is the starter, and I have to admit that I am not one bit surprised he is playing well. I studied him during the 2012 NFL Draft out of Midwestern State, where he played left tackle. All I heard was that he struggled mentally with the game, but I haven't seen any of those issues in the film I've watched. A physical, stay-after-you type, I think he plays with awareness. Silatolu has also shown the ability to adjust on the move, which was something that he was also able to do in college.
Where the Panthers have had some issues is at center. The normal starter, Ryan Kalil, is on injured reverse with a foot injury and Jeff Byers has taken over. This is a huge loss for the Panthers because Kalil was one of the most consistent performers in the league at his position.
If Carolina has another weakness, it's at right tackle with Byron Bell, who is a long-armed guy that doesn't move all that well. Where rushers have had some success against him is when they don't allow him to get his hands on them. If a rusher can get his shoulder past him up the field, Bell isn't quick enough to adjust. Watch how he handles the edge rushers for the Cowboys.
The numbers don't suggest that the Panthers are having any success in their running game, but every time I saw Newton hand or pitch the ball to DeAngelo Williams, it looked like positive things were happening. I really don't think you can sleep on this Panthers group of running backs, and that includes Jonathan Stewart.
The Panthers like to use Williams in many different ways. He is the Wildcat quarterback, he catches screens, he'll get the ball on the goal line, and he runs the crack toss. Where the majority of his touches come is on the inside handoff out of the shotgun. Williams can run the ball inside or out, it doesn't matter. Being physical is not his problem at all. He is a slippery back in the sense that you think you have a good shot at him, and then he is through you. This is a player that coordinator Rob Ryan and his defense are going to have to be ready for, going sideline to sideline, all day.
Defensively, the Panthers don't have big-name players like the Giants, Bears, or Ravens but there still is talent at some key spots. I really like the two starting linebackers, Jon Beason and Luke Kuechly. These two were all over the field in games I studied.
Beason's movement is outstanding, but he can also take you on when it comes to filling the hole. One of the problems that we have seen with this Cowboys offensive line when it comes to run blocking is having to chase linebackers to block in the running game. Where Dallas had a great deal of success against Baltimore was handling the down linemen but also getting hats on the Ravens linebackers. This week will be more of a challenge, like it was against the Bucs and Bears, because Beason and Kuechly both have a nose for the ball.
One of my favorite defensive players in this 2012 NFL Draft was Kuechly, out of Boston College. I never saw him come off the field in any games I watched. He is a true three-down player. When it comes to his ability to read quickly and get into position to make a play, Kuechly has some Sean Lee in him. Kuechly is a hard guy to fool, run or pass. Against the Giants, quarterback Eli Manning tried to run a play-action screen and Kuechly read it all the way, tackling the back for no gain. Against the Saints, they tried to run the ball right at him, but again, he used his hands, got off the block and made the tackle in the hole. Phil Costa, Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau did an outstanding job last week in handling the inside three for the Ravens. The challenge this week is not allowing Beason and Kuechly to make every tackle.
The Panthers really don't rush the passer all that well, but ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are not bad players, along with rookie Frank Alexander coming off the bench. Johnson has some ability to get pressure, but you just don't see it all the time. He will rush from the left side, which means the majority of the time he will be matched up against Cowboys right tackle Doug Free.
Hardy is the more explosive of the two, but he also looks the lightest on tape. Playing with solid technique and very active with his hands, Hardy has great athletic ability. The Saints tried to block him low and he showed really good balance.
In the secondary, Chris Gamble and Josh Norman are the corners with Charles Godfrey and Haruki Nakamura playing safety. These corners give receivers a lot of room to operate partly because they are scared to give up big gains. Former starter Captain Munnerlyn is the nickel back, and he is the more aggressive of the corners.
If the Panthers try to cover Cowboys tight end Jason Witten with Godfrey, they are going to have huge problems. In the Giants game, he really struggled with Martellus Bennett because his reaction skills are not that good, plus he has trouble moving with his man and adjusting.
Nakamura is a tough guy that plays with a physical nature and is always around the ball. He is the one guy on the backend that actually wants to hit someone. Norman goes low way too much. It's the type of secondary where opportunities for good plays will be there. The key will be making sure they are executed.