It’s been a long and busy off-season/preseason for the Carolina Panthers but NFL Kickoff weekend is finally on the horizon. For the first time since 2013, the Panthers open their season in the comfort of their own home at Bank of America stadium. They’ll be taking on a Dallas Cowboys team that is looking for a fresh start following a tumultuous 2017 season that saw Jerry Jones and company fall short of lofty expectations.
Dallas were heavy favorites to win the NFC East and a popular pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl going into last season, but things just didn’t seem to fall into place. Jason Garrett, who has somehow kept his job after fielding a number of subpar teams, looks to continue to say “yes” to Jerry Jones and keep America’s Team just good enough. Joking aside, the Cowboys lost some key players on both sides of the ball this off-season.
After one of his worst seasons as a pro, wide receiver Dez Bryant was cut loose. This seemed to be more of a locker room adjustment than a decision based on poor play, although Bryant is still currently a free agent. Allen Hurns and Michael Gallup are two guys that were brought in to try to replace Bryant’s production. Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten retired to go into the Monday Night Football broadcasting booth, and linebacker Anthony Hitchens left to join the Kansas City Chiefs. The Cowboys seem to be somewhere between a rebuilding and transitional phase, a lot of where that meter teeters will rely on Sunday afternoon’s outcome in Charlotte.
Dallas Cowboys at Carolina Panthers: Keys to the Game
Cowboys Offensive Line Injuries
The Panthers aren’t the only team who have had their offensive line decimated by injuries throughout the preseason. The Dallas Cowboys may be fielding an offensive line that is missing three starters including All-Pro guard Zack Martin, All-Pro center Travis Frederick, and right tackle La’el Collins.
Cowboys right tackle La’el Collins has his left ankle taped pretty good and has been limping. Chaz Green is at right tackle. With Tyron Smith not practicing the current line from left to right is: Cameron Fleming, Connor Williams, Joe Looney, Kadeem Edwards and Green.
— Todd Archer (@toddarcher) August 23, 2018
The Panthers defensive line should see this tweet and be frothing at the mouth. With a front seven that is arguably the best in football, a key to a Panthers victory will be taking advantage of a weak Cowboys front line. If Carolina is able to stuff running back Ezekiel Elliott early on and force Dak Prescott to shoulder the load, it’ll be a long day for the Dallas offense.
Work-Horsing Christian McCaffrey
The Panthers offense looks to be a new animal this season. With offensive coordinator Norv Turner at the helm, Cam Newton and the Panthers should seem like a completely different team. The coaching staff has come out and said that they want Christian McCaffrey to touch the ball 25-30 times per game this year. Week one is Ron Rivera and Turner’s chance to stay true to their word. In a preseason that saw McCaffrey get a massive workload, including goal-line carries, fans of the Panthers and fantasy football alike are eager to see what the second year tailback can do. Carolina hasn’t had to rely on a runner not named Jonathan Stewart in what seems like a lifetime. There is a new feel to this offense regarding pure speed and versatility. If the Panthers are going to win, McCaffery will surely play a huge part.
Will the Secondary Show Up Against a Weak Receiving Corps?
The Panthers addressed a major weakness at cornerback and safety by drafting Donte Jackson and signing Da’Norris Searcy. Pending concussion protocol, Searcy looks to be starting on Sunday. Jackson is a lock at the second cornerback spot, after impressing coaches throughout the off-season with his speed and swag. Searcy and Mike Adams may have the most important job of all on Sunday: helping clean up Jackson’s mistakes. As all rookies do, especially in their first NFL action, Jackson will make mistakes. The key here will be how he responds to these mistakes. If Jackson keeps a level head, this secondary could improve dramatically. This Dallas receiving corps is the perfect one to get your feet wet with.
Worst Case Scenario
Bryant was truly holding back the Cowboys. Prescott thrives in a low-pressure environment and is able to light up a weak Panthers secondary. Zeke doesn’t care who he’s running behind and makes an aging Panthers front seven look silly. Newton turns the ball over multiple times and McCaffrey isn’t able to get the ball rolling. Rivera regrets firing Shula. Garrett says no to Jones. The midfield logo turns out to be the NFL shield again.
Best Case Scenario
Turner’s and Shula’s offensive schemes are night and day. The Panthers, led by an efficient and accurate Newton, are able to move the ball effortlessly up and down the field with great balance between the run and pass. D.J. Moore and Jackson have big games to begin their rookie of the year campaigns a la the Saints duo last year. Alex Armah makes fullbacks cool again.