The Cowboys entered their season opener in Carolina with plenty of hype on the defensive side of the ball, and just as much cautious optimism on offense. With the Panthers defense having other ideas, it was the Dallas defense that made the most lasting impression from this otherwise forgettable week one performance.
Falling 16-8 with only 232 yards to show for it on offense, the Cowboys find themselves quickly looking for answers in the passing game ahead of a week two home meeting with the 0-1 New York Giants. The Cowboys inability to make any plays on the outside limited their rushing game against the Panthers, as Ezekiel Elliott made his return to the field by failing to gain over 70 rushing yards for just the third time in his career.
Elliott was responsible for the Cowboys lone touchdown, which gave the team some hope behind their strong showing on defense. As always, here are my initial thoughts on the game that was for the Cowboys on the road Sunday.
- Great, acrobatic play from Jarius Wright on third down to make a catch while falling down, but it was a missed opportunity for Anthony Brown to get the Cowboys defense off the field.
Wright would extent the Panthers first scoring drive, which ended in a Cam Newton touchdown run, with his tumbling catch in the second quarter. Cowboys Cornerback Anthony Brown played the rub concept well, flipping his hips to steer Wright towards the sideline.
With Newton under pressure, he had no choice but to throw the ball where Wright could come back to it. Doing just that, Wright secured the catch in front of Brown, who simply didn’t react to the pass. If he did, Brown likely has no problem knocking the ball away from an otherwise out-of-position receiver, ending the Panthers drive.
The play was a concerning reminder that Brown has regressed from his 2016 form. A rookie at the time, Brown elevated himself to a starter as a sixth round pick by consistently making plays on the ball. The Cowboys will give Brown every chance to do so this season, but the Purdue product is no longer the same player.
- The Cowboys defense got off the field in a big way when they sent a well-timed linebacker blitz at Cam Newton on third down in the fourth quarter. It would unfortunately lead to a missed Brett Maher field goal on the next drive.
The Cowboys are not known for sending many linebackers on blitzes under Rod Marinelli. Still this team’s play caller, Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard has worked closely with the linebackers, and had his say in when Marinelli’s defense brought pressure.
The Cowboys can only hope that Sean Lee’s struggles in this game were early season rust, but it’s a great sign that they still played as well as they did without their captain being his usual self. Dallas stayed committed to using a true rotation at linebacker, with Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Damien Wilson, and Justin March-Lillard all seeing action.
On a pivotal third down play, backed up to their own 20, Newton had absolutely nowhere to go with the ball as the Cowboys sent both linebackers on the field at him. Give credit to the Cowboys defensive front for occupying their blocks, as the play created pressure in Newton’s face and brought up a Panthers punt.
- Kavon Frazier continues to take advantage of opportunity every time he can, a welcome sight for a Cowboys defense thin at safety.
Playing without Xavier Woods, Cowboys Safety Kavon Frazier proved that he’ll remain an integral part of the Cowboys rotation in the secondary regardless of Woods’ status. The Cowboys struggled to contain the edge a number of times early against the Panthers power running game. Their adjustment here was to move Frazier closer to the line of scrimmage.
Frazier was as comfortable as always coming downhill to make physical plays against the run in the box, but also flashed a few times in coverage. One of his best traits remains Frazier’s ability to cover ground quickly and efficiently. If the Cowboys scheme allows him to do just that once Woods returns to the lineup, this team could be much better off at safety than ever expected.
- I’ll wait for the game tape to make any definitive judgments on the Cowboys offensive line, but I’d love to know how much the absence of Travis Frederick affected rookie Left Guard Connor Williams.
Backup Center Joe Looney had his hands full in his first regular season start for the Cowboys, and although he wasn’t the most glaring issue with the Cowboys offense, this team still clearly missed Travis Frederick.
His ability to keep the offensive line playing together, and help his guards to either side with blocks, is what makes Frederick one of the best, technically refined linemen in the league. The Cowboys won’t get the same level of cohesiveness from Looney, and this affected rookie Connor Williams at left guard.
Williams continues to struggle against power rush moves as a smaller guard (and college tackle). The Cowboys were in no position to help Williams and potentially get him out in space more thanks to the Panthers depth up front, which occupied the entirety of this Dallas line.
- DeMarcus Lawrence’s two stops on the Panthers last drive proved why he’s among the elite defenders in the NFL.
As a whole, this probably wasn’t the dominant performance that the tight-knit Cowboys defensive line was expecting against a weakened Panthers OL. Newton was hit four times (sacked three) on 26 drop backs.
Lawrence was still able to prove that he’s the undisputed leader of this group late in the fourth quarter.
Lawrence showed off his hand usage on a first down run from C.J. Anderson, effortlessly getting inside of his blocker and making a stop. Later on third down, Lawrence would pressure Newton off the left edge and force him to step up into a waiting Tyrone Crawford for a gain of one.
It’s a shame the Cowboys did so little with their final possession, because the Cowboys defense did everything it could to win this game on their own, up until the closing moments with Tank leading the way.
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With plenty to still unpack about how the Cowboys began their 2018 season, it’s too early to consider what an 0-2 start could mean for this team. The Cowboys brass was clearly unhappy with this 16-8 result at the Panthers, with both Jerry and Stephen Jones declining to comment after the game.
As expected simply by looking at the box score, Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan has also taken plenty of heat for the way his offense came out flat and predictable.
Whether or not it continues to bode well that this Sean’s Scout covered mostly the Cowboys emerging defense will be determined by the offense’s ability to get in manageable down-and-distances and find creativity in the passing game.