The Dallas Cowboys regular season schedule kicks off on Sunday Sept 9th as they travel to North Carolina to face the Carolina Panthers in week one of the NFL season. We made it y'all. Real football starts.
The Dallas Cowboys and the Carolina Panthers are two teams that have a lot in common.
- Both the Carolina Panthers and the Dallas Cowboys have quarterbacks (Cam Newton and Dak Prescott) who are as dangerous with their legs as they are with their arms.
- Both, though some talent there, have question marks at wide receiver.
- Both CAR and DAL will use the running game to get their offense going.
- Between Luke Kuechly and Sean Lee, each team has a linebacker considered one of the best in the NFL.
- And both teams have had to deal with the absence of their respective player (Kuechly and Lee) due to injury over the years.
As the Dallas Cowboys look to make a run toward the playoffs and hopefully a sixth Lombardi Trophy, the Carolina Panthers are the first hurdle along the way.
As we get ready for the first real football game of the season, let's dig into the numbers that will make this a great week one matchup.
The last time these two played was in the 2015 season - the infamous game in which Tony Romo made his return from a broken collarbone he suffered earlier in the season. He probably shouldn't have come back as he was hit a lot and threw three interceptions before being knocked out of the game with another injury to the same shoulder.
Prior to that, the Dallas Cowboys had won the nine previous regular season meetings and own a 9-4 record over the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers have had the Cowboys' number in the playoffs as America's Team has gone 0-2 over the history of the matchup.
The number of seasons in which Carolina Panthers Pro Bowl Quarterback Cam Newton has been sacked less than 30 times in a season. 0. For his career he's been sacked at an average of 36.6 times at a rate of 16 games per season. That would be more than two sacks per game.
With the Carolina Panthers down a lot of offensive line assets to start the season, it would appear that Cam is ripe for the picking.
Only one quarterback since Dante Culpepper did it in 2002 has rushed for double-digit touchdowns in the last 16 seasons; Cam Newton. He's also the only player to do it twice since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
Along with Cam, Michael Vick and Steve McNair are the only quarterbacks to have multiple seasons of eight rushing touchdowns. Newton has three of those seasons. Vick and McNair only did it twice.
Keeping Cam Newton contained is a huge key to victory on Sunday.
The amount of times Cam Newton has finished a season with a completion percentage above 60%.
He hasn't accomplished that feat since 2013 -- a streak of four seasons with a completion percentage under 60%. No, completion percentage isn't everything, especially for a player who's just as dangerous with his legs as he is with his arm.
A lot of times when you look at a quarterback with a low completion percentage you might think it's because he's taking deep shots down the field. With Newton that isn't the case. According to Pro Football Focus, who tracks number of "deep passing attempts," Newton ranked 19th in deep attempts in the NFL with 57. He only threw deeper than 20 yards on 11.6% of his passes, which was 20th in the NFL. Newton's 35.1% completion percentage on these throws was 22nd in the NFL and he had a quarterback rating of 60.6 on such throws.
What's to be gleaned from this?
Newton isn't a very accurate passer and he lives in the short to intermediate parts of the field. Take that away and it's going to be a long day for Cam.
For a bit of reference: Dak Prescott has had completion percentages over 60% in both of his first two seasons. Newton has played seven years in the NFL.
Prescott attempted 43 deep attempts, which was 25th in the NFL, but completed 44.6% of those passes for over 500 yards and a 4:1 touchdown to interception ratio. Dak had a quarterback rating of 106.2 on throws over 20 yards, which was the 5th best number among quarterbacks with at least 40 attempts.
The Dallas Cowboys averaged 4.5 yards per attempt in 2017, which was third in the NFL and just a touch better than the Carolina Panthers 4.3. The big difference being that the Cowboys rely far less on their quarterback to make things happen with his legs than the Panthers do.
Cam Newton led the Panthers in rushing in 2017 with 754 yards and six touchdowns, while averaging 5.4 yards per attempt. Christian McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart -- the only other Panthers runners to have more than 100 carries on the season -- averaged 3.7 and 3.4 yards per attempt.
With the Carolina Panthers being decimated on the offensive line, it could be tough to get their running game going week one. Even against a depleted Dallas Cowboys interior defensive line.
No, this isn't a reference to former Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Tony Romo, this is where Dak Prescott ranked in total pressures in 2017.
We know that things broke down for Dak in the second half of the season when Tyron Smith was out and struggling with injuries. Here's hoping that Dallas keeps the pressure off so Dak can work his magic.
Carolina finished the 2017 season 11th in the NFL in points allowed. That's a pretty tremendous feat considering they played the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons twice each, the New England Patriots, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, and Philadelphia Eagles (before Carson Wentz was injured) and the Detroit Lions.
In those nine games, the Panthers allowed 26 points per game. They went 5-4. In the other seven games they only allowed an average of 13.28 points per game and went 6-1. That against the likes of the San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears (in a loss), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (twice), Miami Dolphins, and the New York Jets. The New York Jets, who weren't very good last season, were able to score 27 points on the Panthers in week 12 last season.
They were a Jekyll and Hyde defense, and the better offensive teams took advantage. Make no mistake, the Dallas Cowboys are one of the better offenses in the NFL.
Luke Kuechly finished second in the NFL in run-stop percentage, according to Pro Football Focus. Only Reuben Foster of the San Francisco 49ers had a better run-stop percentage (11.4%) of players who played at least 50% of their team's run snaps. Kuechly played 53 more snaps than Foster.
Pro Football Focus defines a "run stop" as, "tackles that constitute a 'loss' for the offense." Sean Lee had a run stop percentage of 13%, but wasn't on the field for 50% of the Dallas Cowboys' defensive run plays.
Where the Carolina Panthers ranked in points per game in 2017, just a couple of spots ahead of the Dallas Cowboys at 14. In 2016, the Panthers finished 15th. That's a huge drop off from leading the league in 2015 when they were the only team to score more than 500 points.
The Dallas Cowboys were top-5 in the NFL in 2016, but there was also a big difference in QB, receiver, and OL play in 2017.
The two teams that will face off this Sunday tied for 16th in the NFL in turnover differential with -1. The Cowboys hope that by protecting Dak Prescott better that he'll return to protecting the ball with the same efficiency we saw in 2016.
Cam Newton has never had a season in which he threw less than 10 interceptions, averaging 13.4 interceptions per season.
The Dallas Cowboys, with the addition of Kris Richard as defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator, hope Richard will be the key to seeing the Cowboys become a ball-hawking turnover machine.
The Dallas Cowboys' 18 rushing touchdowns were second in the NFL only to the New Orleans Saints' high-powered rushing attack. Remember that Ezekiel Elliott missed six games.
Defensive Ends Julius Peppers and Mario Addison each had 11 sacks last season. Their average age going into 2018 is 33.5 years of age.
These two prove that age is just a number.
The amount of touchdowns Dallas Cowboys Running Back Ezekiel Elliott has scored through his first two seasons in the NFL. That's 25 touchdowns in 25 games.
Only Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson, Clinton Portis, Curtis Martin, Edgerrin James, Billy Sims, and David Johnson played at least 25 games in their first two seasons and averaged at least a touchdown a game.
Dak Prescott and Cam Newton had the same amount of combined passing and rushing touchdowns last season - 28. They both had 22 passing touchdowns and six rushing touchdowns. Both of these guys will use their legs to make things happen, though Carolina likes to call designed runs more for Newton than Dallas does for Prescott.
The Carolina Panthers' 50 sacks as a team ranked them third in the NFL last season, while the Dallas Cowboys finished 15th in total sacks with 38.
Dallas will have a good shot to improve on that number this year with Randy Gregory back and the depth they have in Taco Charlton and Dorance Armstrong. Hopefully David Irving will be back and unleashing his pass rush prowess week five. But in regular season terms, week five is a long way off.
Last season the Carolina Panthers finished third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game at 88.1. They only allowed seven rushing touchdowns in 2017, tied with the Dallas Cowboys for third in the NFL. They only played six games against teams in the top-10 in rushing in 2017.
The Dallas Cowboys, on the other hand, averaged 135.6 rushing yards per game in 2017, which was second in the NFL. That's particularly amazing given that Ezekiel Elliott missed six games in the middle of the season and rushed for only eight yards in the week two contest against the Denver Broncos.
Probably the biggest key to the Dallas Cowboys success is going to be how well they run the ball against the Carolina Panthers front seven.
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So, what do you think? Given the numbers mentioned above, who has the edge when these teams kick off on Sunday. Stay tuned for our predictions here at Inside The Star, later this week.
Snap Judgments: Cowboys’ Linebacker Depth Stands Out in Win
The Dallas Cowboys evened their record at 1-1 with their 20-13 victory over the New York Giants on Sunday night. The Cowboys linebackers had a huge impact on the outcome of the game and it wasn't just the guys at the top of the depth chart either. America's Team got contributions from guys at the bottom of the depth chart.
What a difference a year makes.
The Dallas Cowboys worked hard this offseason to fix the linebacker depth that failed them in the 2017 season. When Sean Lee or Anthony Hitchens -- or both -- were sidelined with injuries, Jaylon Smith, Damien Wilson, and the rest of the linebacker group struggled to keep up with opposing offenses. Specifically, in games against the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers the major depth inadequacy was revealed.
One year later, the Dallas Cowboys have a linebacker corp that allows them to go five deep with Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Joe Thomas, and Damien Wilson all making considerable contributions for the Dallas Cowboys in Sunday nights victory.
Here are the final snap counts for the five linebackers that played a defensive snap against the Giants.
- Jaylon Smith - 57 (84%)
- Sean Lee - 41 (60)
- Leighton Vander Esch - 28 (48%)
- Damien Wilson - 17 (25%)
- Joe Thomas - 14 (21%)
Jaylon Smith led the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night with 10 tackles (seven solo) and played really well roaming sideline to sideline and making plays. He was tasked with the difficult assignment of containing New York Giants Running Back Saquon Barkley and allowed four catches for 41 yards in his coverage area. Smith was credited with three stops or plays that result in a "loss" for the offense (per Pro Football Focus). Smith led the team in snaps for the second straight week.
Sean Lee had a better game on Sunday night than he did in week one. PFF credited him with four stops, four tackles and an assist. Lee allowed two catches for 24 yards on two targets to Wayne Gallman and Evan Engram. Lee pulled his hamstring at the end of the game and was held out the rest of the way for precautionary reasons. He'll be an interesting name to watch on this week's injury report. Age catches up with everyone, but hopefully Sean Lee can stave it off for at least another season.
Rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch saw a big bump in his snap count from week one (17) to week two (28). The rookie played well too. As many players seemed to struggle with tackling Saquon Barkley, Vander Esch was able to bring down the number two overall pick on several occasions. Vander Esch had seven solo tackles in his second career game.
Damien Wilson was the surprise player of the night. He had three tackles on the night, including one on special teams, a sack, and a forced fumble. Though his time on the field might have been short, his impact was certainly felt. His forced fumble led to a field goal that gave the Dallas Cowboys a 13-0 nothing lead. Wilson was also credited with two stops on the night.
Joe Thomas has been a good player for the team off the bench as well. Though he only had one tackle, it was good enough to be credited with a stop. He's a player that can play both the WILL and MIKE linebacker spots. As the fourth or fifth linebacker on the depth chart, Thomas is a great role player.
Other Snap Count Notes
- Taco Charlton may not have started, but he played 84% of the team's defensive snaps. That number is up from 73% in week one. Charlton had a sack, a hit, and a hurry as well as three stops on the night.
- Cole Beasley and Allen Hurns led the wide receiver group in snap percentage from week one to week two. The big difference at wide receiver was seeing Michael Gallup take the third most snaps on offense instead of Deonte Thompson. Thompson still had the bigger impact with four catches for 33 yards on five targets including two for first downs.
- Geoff Swaim was the far and away leader at tight end in snaps with a 94% snap count. Only the offensive line and Dak Prescott had more snaps on the night than Swaim. He's the TE1 for the team, though he didn't have an impact in the passing game.
- Rico Gathers only played five snaps, but there was concerted effort to get him the ball as he had two targets in his five snaps. He may not have come away with a catch, but it's a start.
- Jourdan Lewis continues to be the odd man out on defense. He only played one snap.
- Dorance Armstrong saw a snap jump from week one to week two going from 28% of the defensive snaps to 40% of the snaps. He had two hurries and an assisted tackle.
Why Cowboys Need Tavon Austin More Involved Offensively
Two games into the 2018 season and I'm still not quite sure what to make of the Dallas Cowboys offense. To me, there is a void of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. With the exception of Ezekiel Elliott and maybe Cole Beasley, there is a lack of consistency that is really hurting this offensive unit. Changes need to be made or someone needs to step up in a hurry.
Enter Wide Receiver/Running Back Tavon Austin.
Just looking at Tavon Austin you would probably put him in the category with Cole Beasley, a small/diminutive WR who should strictly be playing out of the slot. That's typically where the smaller WRs get placed in the NFL because teams would like you to believe that due to their diminutive stature, they can't succeed on the outside.
Well, guess what? The passing game is changing around the league and we're starting to see more of these smaller/quicker WRs earn more prominent roles. The reasoning is these types of receivers are generally known to be better route runners, who are more capable of creating separation on their own.
The Dallas Cowboys must be buying into this philosophy because during the offseason they pretty much revamped the entire wide receiver position with that thought at least in the back of their minds. They didn't bring in a lot of "undersized" WRs, but they did focus on adding pass catchers who can run better routes and create separation on their own.
Wide Receiver Tavon Austin is one of those pass catchers Dallas brought in to improve their passing game. Austin really hasn't been utilized as much as I thought he would in the first two games, but he is starting to look like a dynamic weapon the Cowboys can't ignore much longer.
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Last Sunday night against the New York Giants, the Dallas Cowboys finally decided to utilize Tavon Austin's speed in the passing game. The result, a 64 yard touchdown pass from Quarterback Dak Prescott.
Austin's speed to stretch the field both vertically and horizontally is something the Dallas Cowboys need to incorporate more of into their offensive game plan. Forcing opposing defenses to have to cover more of the field should create more opportunities for big plays in both the running and passing game.
Stretching the field vertically with Austin's speed will open up things up underneath in the passing game. It takes at least one, possibly two defenders out of the play, leaving nine to defend against 10 Cowboys offensive players. That benefits Ezekiel Elliott in the running game and the other WRs running those underneath routes.
Stretching the field horizontally mostly helps the running game, which is great news when you have a dynamic running back like Zeke. Utilizing Austin's speed on jet sweeps or reverses forces the edge defenders from crashing down on inside runs. It also forces the linebackers to hesitate more because they have to respect the threat of both an inside or outside run.
Against the Giants, Tavon Austin turned three touches into 94 total yards, two receptions for 79 receiving yards and one rushing attempt for 15 yards. Imagine if the Cowboys were to give him about 10 touches a game. It seems like such a simple thing, but I think it could have a huge impact (for the better) for the entire offense.
Do you think the Dallas Cowboys need to get Tavon Austin more involved?
Takeaway Tuesday: Prescott’s Legs Give Offense a Much Needed Spark
When the Dallas Cowboys took the field last Sunday against the New York Giants, they did so very differently than last week, starting with a 64-yard touchdown pass from Dak Prescott to connect with WR Tavon Austin in the third play of the game. Although there are still many things this team must continue to work on, they looked like a very improved unit in week 2.
Here are my main takeaways from the Dallas Cowboys' first win of the year. Let me know what yours are in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL and let's talk football!
Cowboys' Secondary Capable of Holding Top WR
If there was one player who could've changed the outcome for the New York Giants, it was WR Odell Beckham Jr. Widely recognized as one of the best wideouts in the nation, Beckham was the biggest challenge the cornerbacks, led by Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie, have had in the first two weeks.
None of them followed Beckham all over the field, each stayed on their side of the field and still managed to limit him to four receptions for 51 yards in nine targets. The Giant's offense is not known for being one of the best in the league, but it's the fact that this defense was able to limit exactly the player they needed to. They did their job.
Also, props to the defensive line for keeping the pressure on Eli Manning.
Taco Charlton Was Dominant VS Nate Solder
With Randy Gregory ruled out for the game, Taco Charlton had a golden opportunity to stay on the field for more snaps. He took advantage of this, as he finished the night with three tackles, one for a loss, a sack and a fumble recovery.
Charlton still has a long way to go in order to prove he was worthy of a first round pick, but we can't deny he hasn't stopped developing. It will be interesting to see how he does now that Gregory is expected to return for week 3.
Dak Prescott's Legs Give Offense a Needed Spark
One of the things I liked the most about the Cowboys' game versus the Giants was how Dak Prescott was utilized. Criticized after a poor performance in Carolina, Prescott came out with a chip on his shoulder.
We've been talking a lot about how Scott Linehan must play Prescott to his strengths and that's precisely what he did by letting Dak run for 45 yards in seven carries. It's completely understandable if the Cowboys don't want to run him as much as the Panthers do with Cam Newton, but the truth is, if #4 hurts defenses with his leg, Ezekiel Elliott won't receiver all of the defense's attention.
Also, shoutout to how they used Tavon Austin. With Elliott, Prescott and Austin being a threat on option plays, this offense could take a step on the right direction.
Rico Gathers Will Be Used
The Cowboys' Rico Gathers project is moving in the right direction. The 2016 sixth-round pick was active for the first time in his career last Sunday. The first question that popped into our heads was whether or not he'd be actually used in the game. He was.
He even managed to get open in the end zone in a play that could've been TD but Prescott didn't throw a good pass. However, the mere fact that he was able to get open and that the coaches actually put him on the field told us a lot about his future. Cowboys Nation should be excited to see him involved.
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