The Carolina Panthers are obviously a running football team, but that doesn't mean they aren't efficient when they air it out. On defense, the Cowboys will have to manage the difficult task of halting Carolina's rushing offense without becoming vulnerable to the big play. On offense, the 'Boys will face a defense that has been equally mediocre against the run and the pass.
4.5: Yards per carry by all Panthers' players in 2012.
The Panthers own the seventh-most efficient rushing game in the NFL right now, highlighted by quarterback Cam Newton. The sophomore signal-caller is on pace for almost 700 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground this season. He's averaging 5.2 yards per carry (YPC), primarily on designed read-option plays.
7.3: Net yards per attempt by the Panthers' passing offense.
As much as everyone wants to praise the Panthers' rushing attack, their passing game has also been sensational this season. One of the reasons for that is that defenses often load eight men in the box in anticipation of a run, and rightfully so; the Panthers have attempted only 140 passes all season, the fewest of any team in the NFL.
Nonetheless, only two offenses in the entire league have been more efficient than Carolina through the air. Thus, although the Cowboys need to make stopping the run a priority, they also need to be on the lookout for "surprise" passes that can allow the Panthers to get down the field in a hurry.
5: Interceptions thrown by Cam Newton.
Even though Newton is a dynamic dual-threat player, he's still susceptible to turning over the ball. He's on pace for 16 interceptions, just one less than he threw in his rookie season. Plus, his interception rate of 3.7 percent is one of the worst in the league. The picks are really the only knock on an offense that is widely underrated because they run the ball so frequently (and thus don't accrue the total yards of many pass-first offenses).
8.5: Percentage of dropbacks on which Newton has been sacked.
Newton has been sacked at the sixth-highest rate in the NFL, primarily because he tries to extend plays well after other quarterbacks would have gotten rid of the football. The same style of play that leads to occasional sacks also allows Newton to gash defenses with his legs or scramble behind the line and hit open receivers downfield. It's imperative for the Cowboys to bring Newton down once he's in their grasp.
14.5: Yards per completion for Carolina in 2012.
Need more evidence that the Panthers like to get the ball downfield in the passing game? The average length of their completions is 14.5 yards, or 3.4 yards more than the average completion for the Cowboys. On the season, 14.0 percent of Newton's passes have traveled at least 20 yards in the air, the fourth-highest mark in the NFL. The primary mission for safety Gerald Sensabaugh this week is to make sure the Panthers can't parlay their rushing success into big chunks of yardage in the passing game.
38.7: Newton's completion percentage when pressured.
Newton can get overwhelmed when he has defenders in his face, particularly if he has nowhere to run. When throwing under pressure, Newton has compiled a 55.2 passer rating and he's completed only 38.7 percent of his passes, third worst in the NFL. Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has dialed back a lot of his blitzes thus far in 2012, but I expect him to send five or more rushers after Newton early and often on Sunday.
6.6: Net yards per attempt allowed by the Panthers' pass defense.
The Panthers have been mediocre in most aspects of their defense in 2012. They're currently ranked 20th in pass defense (in terms of efficiency) and 23rd in rush defense. In regards to game-planning for Carolina, I don't think the Cowboys need to emphasize one aspect of their offense over another; simply roll with what is working.
68.0: Completion percentage allowed by Carolina.
Only two defenses have yielded a higher rate of completions than the Panthers. Carolina does a really good job of keeping things in front of them, however. Despite the high completion percentage, the Panthers have given up only 11.3 yards per completion.
88.4: Percentage of snaps on which defensive end Charles Johnson has lined up on the left side.
Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson is one of the more underrated pass-rushers in the game. The explosive, physical defensive end leads the team in pressures, hits and sacks. Johnson almost always lines up on the left side of the Panthers' defense, meaning he'll be matched up primarily with right tackle Doug Free. That's a battle that favors the Panthers, so look for head coach Jason Garrett to give Free some help throughout the night.
13: Number of times cornerback Chris Gamble has been targeted.
Although Gamble missed the Panthers' last game with a shoulder injury, he has been targeted at a lower rate than any cornerback in the NFL this year. Gamble, who has shadowed the opposition's No. 1 receiver, has been thrown at just once for every 12.6 snaps he's been in coverage. Champ Bailey is second with a target every 9.7 snaps.
Meanwhile, fellow starting cornerback Josh Norman has been targeted 31 times, allowing a 67.7 percent completion rate and 8.23 yards per attempt. Overall, both cornerbacks have exceeded expectations thus far this season.