Spagnola: Hot Mid-Term Exam At High Noon

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FRISCO, Texas – Dak Prescott is red hot.

The one-two punch of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard is, too.

Tight end Dalton Schultz is becoming relevant, if he hadn't already after a 63-catch season in 2020.

Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb are ever-threatening.

The Cowboys offensive line is mauling, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and them.

And even Kellen Moore, the Cowboys offensive coordinator, is sizzling over these first three games, his game plans and play calls remarkable.

All leading to the Cowboys offense ranking fifth in total offense, fifth in total points and fourth in rushing yards, along with Dak admittedly playing the best ball of his career. And that's saying something for a two-time Pro Bowler who was off to a record-breaking start last year over his first five games, now holding a 110.1 QB rating after previously last playing in a game 11 months before the start of this season.

This has the making of an offensive juggernaut. Can beat you running the ball. Can beat you throwing the ball. Can beat you doing a little bit of both.

Just what we expected once we realized there wasn't a darn thing wrong with Dak's right ankle nor that right shoulder strain that seemed to have the football world outside these premises here at The Star highly skeptical of his readiness.

And remember Dak's and Kellen's independent pronouncements before the season began to become the NFL's No. 1 offense this 2021 season? They are off to a good start to reach that goal despite having three starters already missing a combined five starts.

Why, the Cowboys are averaging 30 points a game, and have scored at least 29 in two games, a high of 41 and came within 1 minute, 24 seconds of winning the other one scoring 29.

That is how they have reached this 2-1 mark and first place in the NFC East for the first time since they were leading with an unimaginable 2-4 record last year, a half-game ahead of the 1-4-1 Eagles and a game ahead of the 1-5 Washingtons.

"When you talk about their offense, start with Dak Prescott," Carolina head coach Matt Rhule says. He's superb."

He goes on to mention every facet of the Cowboys offense, all of the aforementioned, with the exception of Schultz, then adds, "They have the ability to run the football and throw it, matriculate the ball down the field or be explosive.

"But when you pull the whole thing back, it's like watching Peyton Manning, watching Drew Brees call the game at the line of scrimmage. I think what Dak's doing right now is unbelievably impressive."

Now you might say Rhule is purposefully embellishing here, not wanting to poke the bear ahead of Sunday's high noon start at AT&T Stadium, his 3-0 Panthers up against those 2-1 Cowboys, Carolina going for its fourth straight win and Dallas its third. But guessing he's not far off from what any independent evaluator might say.

Of course, that's all fine and good. But now comes that first mid-fall semester exam, and it's no multiple choice either:

The Panthers defense, straight up. Hot.

No. 1 in total yards against.

No. 1 in run defense.

No. 1 in pass defense.

And those stellar rankings don't even do justice to the numbers inside what the Carolina defense has accomplished over the first three games of the season.

And look, before we go any further, we will issue this disclaimer. Two of those three games were played against the 0-3 Jets with rookie quarterback Zack Wilson making his NFL debut and the 1-2 Texans with rookie Davis Mills making his NFL starting debut. And that other game, vs. 2-1, still displaced New Orleans, Carolina won, 26-7, when the Saints arrived in Charlotte, N.C., with half a coaching staff sidelined during the week and for the game by a COVID outbreak.

But still, the Panthers defense did exactly what it should have done in those games. Slam the door shut on two inexperienced quarterbacks with the other the jury still out on him.

These are the numbers the Cowboys must be most concerned with. Carolina is No. 1 in the NFL after three games with 14 sacks. _Fourteen_ now! Why, the Cowboys have all of four. The Panthers are second in points per game with 10. They are No. 1 in the NFL with the lowest third-down conversion percentage at 21.2 percent.

Oh, and it's not just sacks with Hassan Reddick leading the way with 4.5 and Brian Burns next with 3, the two guys totaling more than half the Panthers sacks. They also lead the NFL with 27 quarterback hits. Also lead with opponents averaging just 12 first downs a game. Heck, the Cowboys have gotten 13 twice in first quarters alone this year.

When it comes to stopping the run, this will be an interesting faceoff. The Cowboys are fourth in the NFL, averaging 139.3 a game. The Panthers have only given up 135 yards rushing … in three games combined, and no individual has rushed for more than 25 yards yet against them. And while the Cowboys have four rushing touchdowns, three by Zeke and one by Pollard, the Panthers have allowed just one rushing touchdown, and that by a quarterback, the Saints' Jameis Winston.

And then this, considering Dak's 110 QB rating. Well, opposing quarterbacks have combined for just a 72.8 QB rating against that Panthers D.

Talk about defense.

"When you look at them, you know, the scoring is most impressive," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarty says. "They've kept the games to low-scoring games. … It will be interesting to see which way they go with us, as far as which way they try to tilt the defense. I would expect more pressure in this game than we've seen in the first three weeks.

"I'm sure there definitely will be run pressures, particularly how we ran the ball the past few weeks. I think they are pretty balanced."

Boy, McCarthy can say that again. Remember, after throwing for 403 yards in the season opener against Tampa Bay, the Cowboys ran for 198 yards against the Chargers and then 160 this past Monday against the Eagles.

So look, this could be a very good test to see just how real this Dallas offense is, to see if indeed, no matter how a defense plays these Cowboys, they can continue to adjust to lean on only the pass, only the run, or become balanced run and pass.

And if the Panthers try to play it straight up, thinking their personnel is good enough to stop the run and pass without overloading against either, then do they have the personnel to match up, especially up front against an offensive line that has been playing pretty well despite no La'el Collins at right tackle the past two games, where Terence Steele has done a fine job so far, and without Michael Gallup at wide receiver these past two games, Cedrick Wilson stepping up in his place.

Dak knows, though, this will be a formidable test.

"A confident defense, a defense that plays fast," Dak says. "They've got some great edge rushers and some speed on the backend. When you start off 3-0 there is a reason, and I think (the defense) is a big part of that.

"So we know we have a confident bunch coming in and we've got to start fast and get on them early."

There you go, two heavyweights, the Cowboys offense and the Panthers defense.

And in honor of that 50th anniversary of that 1971 so-called Game of the Century, pitting Oklahoma against Nebraska, and as featured the week leading up on the cover of _Sports Illustrated_, we have another classic one of these:

Irresistible Force vs. the Immoveable Object.

We'll see just who is the hottest.

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