Thoughts from the film room at Valley Ranch:
• Have to give this front office and the coaches credit for sticking with linebacker Anthony Spencer when the public opinion last spring was quite the opposite. Without Spencer in the lineup these last two weeks, this defense has lacked a point-of-attack player that could also provide some much needed rush off the edge.
Not only was Spencer outstanding on the Panthers' final drive with pressure and the sack, but he was also strong throughout the day against Carolina's read-option scheme, which requires focus and discipline.
There was a play late in the third quarter that proved to me that Spencer was really locked into the game. The Cowboys had just taken the lead 13-7 with time winding down in the third quarter. Carolina faced a third-and-1 from its own 30-yard line. In this situation, you knew that you would probably get some kind of read scheme with Newton carrying the ball. The Panthers get in "12" personnel with Spencer standing up outside on the defense's right side.
At the snap, Newton takes the ball and puts it in the belly of fullback Mike Tolbert as Spencer crashes down inside. Newton sees Spencer commit and pulls the ball, heading outside. Spencer, in balance, then adjusts to Newton to make him cut back inside. Newton tries to shake Spencer with linebacker Dan Connor and safety Gerald Sensabaugh filling from the inside. Spencer is able to grab Newton's legs, keeping him from getting any momentum going forward. Connor and Sensabaugh then meet Newton at the line, tackling him for no gain and forcing the Panthers to punt.
In a game where the linebackers for the Cowboys had to play correct technique to defend the scheme, Spencer was by far the best.
• The one thing that I have learned about defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in the two years that he has been with the Cowboys is that he and this staff are not afraid to use everyone that dresses out for the game. To his credit, when you watch practice, Ryan doesn't have just the first team take all the reps, but he mixes in the backups to not only give them work, but also get them ready in case they have to play.
In the game on Sunday, Ryan was forced to go with some backups that helped make a difference in the outcome. We all know what nose tackle Josh Brent has been able to do this season, particularly when he filled in during Jay Ratliff's injury, and once again he did not let the coaches down. Brent has become a physical force inside, not only against the run but in the passing game as well.
The first turnover of the game was when Brent was able to throw guard Byron Bell aside and hit quarterback Cam Newton in the chest, causing him not miss an open Louis Murphy. Instead, it was an interception by Morris Claiborne.
In the middle of the third quarter, Sean Lee makes a tackle, but tight end Greg Olsen rolls up on the back of his foot. Lee stays in the next play, but when taking on Tolbert, he can't push off his right foot and has to go to the sidelines. Taking his place in the lineup is Connor, who has been known more for his special teams problems than making plays on the defense. Connor comes into the game and is rock solid for a quarter and a half, making tackles and knocking down passes.
In the secondary, core special teamer Eric Frampton is now in the game at safety, replacing Danny McCray on the final Panthers drive. Receiver Brandon LaFell runs a vertical route on cornerback Orlando Scandrick and manages to get some separation. But Frampton, playing deep center field, reads the route by LaFell and is able to work from the middle to help make a play on the ball, keeping the Panthers out of the end zone.
• Last week when I was studying the Panthers, there were two areas of concern I really had. One was dealing with Newton and the read-option offense, with the other being how Ryan was going to defend Olsen and receiver Steve Smith.
Early in the game, Ryan put cornerback Mike Jenkins in the game to handle Olsen, but he didn't go back to that after that first initial time. Olsen only had four catches for 31 yards and was really not a factor in the game like I thought he could be. A lot of credit goes to the linebackers and McCray for the job they were able to do.
Where the big responsibility in this game fell, though, was on cornerback Brandon Carr and how he was going to work against Smith. We have seen Carr this season match up in star coverage and carry guys all over the field. The Panthers tried to move Smith around and put him in the slot as well, but Scandrick was able to hold up there when called upon. Smith did have some success running slant routes on Carr, but overall, Carr did not allow him to make those plays down the field that I had seen Smith gain against other opponents.
One of the best plays that Carr made was on third-and-13 with Smith catching the ball on a curl inside. Carr drove on the ball, holding Smith to a 12-yard gain and getting the Cowboys defense off the field. Later in the game, Carr did get called for a defensive holding on Smith along the goal line, but it was a great route by Smith on a redirection and Carr had no choice but to try and grab him. Those things happen over the course of a game, but you have to give Carr a ton of credit in the way he battled Smith all day.
• On Sunday, I wrote a short piece for DallasCowboys.com on the punting of Brian Moorman, but you also have to give a lot of credit to Lance Dunbar and Eric Frampton in the way they were able to cover the punts from the outside.
I can't begin to explain how difficult it is to beat blocks, hustle to the returner and then break down in the open field to make a tackle. We all have seen too many times where the gunners get down the field and completely whiff on the tackle, which allows a nice return. But because of the work of Moorman, Dunbar and Frampton, the Panthers only averaged 1 return yard on four punts. This week against the Giants, they will need more of the same.