IRVING, Texas – During a typical week, we wouldn't be getting to the Panthers until Wednesday.
It's obviously not a typical week, though – with Carolina set to visit AT&T Stadium in just a little more than two days. With that in mind, here's my weekly breakdown of the opposition.
You've no doubt heard of two of these guys, as they're two of the key pieces to the Panthers' surge to the top of the NFL. The third preview is a Carolina newcomer who just might give the Cowboys fits this Thanksgiving.
Let's take a look:
Nemesis: Luke Kuechly, LB
Plays with incredible passion and desire – you can tell that he loves the game. Similar to what the Cowboys have in Tony Romo. Outstanding physical toughness and football intelligence. Has a closing burst and short-area foot quickness. Playing speed is a rare for a linebacker. He's a reactionary athlete in every sense of the word.
Kuechly has the range to make plays to the sideline, regardless of what direction the ball goes. There's good lateral quickness and balance. He can really change directions when he has to. When he sees it – he is gone. He also plays well with his hands – it's actually those hands that allow him to play the way he does. It's rare that you see him caught on blocks.
When he is on the move – he can be difficult to deal with. He has good upper and lower power and strength. Can hit and strike – plays with a pop. Consistent wrap-up tackler. Awareness in coverage, whether he is playing in zone or man. Shows range in coverage like he does against the running game. In my opinion, his best trait in the passing game is his ability to blitz. Kuechly will walk up tight to the line and at the snap of the ball attack the blockers.
He's a hard guy to deal with one-on-one when he is working against a running back. Just too good with his hands shedding. He has a nose for quarterback and where to position himself to create pressure or get a sack. Has a knack for creating turnovers in the way he tackles.
As you might expect from his production, Kuechly is one of those rare linebackers that never comes off the field.
Weapon: Cam Newton, QB
Give Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula a great deal of credit for the way he handles Cam Newton on the field. Shula does not ask Newton to do things that he cannot execute. Shula plays to Newton's strength, and that is with the play action pass.
Newton is an outstanding ball handler and can be deceptive when Shula asks him to play that way. The way the Panthers run their route combinations gives Newton the opportunities to make more throws in the middle of the field to crossers at various levels -- then taking the occasional shot down the field.
What is interesting about Shula, though, is that he has not done much to change Newton's throwing motion. He still allows Newton to throw the ball at all different arm angles and with less than perfect footwork. There are snaps where, because of this inconsistency of technique, that the ball will go all over the place and his accuracy will struggle. Despite having open receivers, Newton has struggled to get the ball to them, and because of that he has left some plays on the field.
The Panthers appear to be OK with Newton missing some plays, because they know he will make some plays with his legs. He is rare in the regard that his size makes him very difficult to bring down in the pocket. When he runs out of trouble, he can be a load to bring down in the open field one-on-one. His pocket presence and movement in the pocket is outstanding.
This season for the Panthers he has been clutch, and a lot of that comes from his ability to improvise and this is what this Cowboys defense needs to worry about.
Under the Radar: Devin Funchess, WR
This rookie is absolutely massive on tape. I thought when he was coming out of Michigan that you might have to consider him as an athletic, pass-catching tight end.
In college, he was out wide and also in the slot. Catches the ball naturally in his hands. Runs well with the ball in his hands. Struggled some in college when he had to deal with the contested balls, but he has done a much better job making those plays for the Panthers.
He's not a special route runner – a long strider without much initial quickness. He will, however, use his size and hands to fight off the press. He will go and high point the ball down the field and can adjust. Will go high across the middle to get a ball. He catches the ball well on the move. Can get some separation in his routes. Simply put, he's not the smoothest route runner but surprisingly he finds ways to get open.
Given his size, Funchess will fight to gain yards with the ball in hands after the catch. He will track the ball in flight. So far in his rookie season, he has been able to make some clutch plays for this offense. Newton shows faith in him when he needs a big play.
Funchess really started picking up his game three weeks ago against Green Bay and has been improving each week. His size and hands make him a difficult receiver to have to match.