DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys are heading into Week 4 with a 2-1 record and find themselves sitting on top of the NFC East. There are good vibes coming from the team after they dismantled the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 3.
However, it’s time to turn the page. The next challenge awaits with the undefeated Carolina Panthers coming to Dallas. They will arrive with four days of extra rest – having last played on Sept. 23 – and will take on a Cowboys team that is coming off a Monday night game, so there is a slight disadvantage heading into the matchup for Dallas.
With that in mind, here are some of the keys for handing the Panthers their first loss of the season:
Slow down WR D.J. Moore - The Panthers lost their best player on offense when Christian McCaffrey suffered a hamstring injury that will cause him to miss Sunday’s game. The next best option for the Panthers is Moore, who has transformed into one of the better receivers in the league.
Moore ranks in the top 10 in the NFL in receiving yards (285), targets (31), receptions (22) and yards per game (95), so the defense needs to have a plan to slow him down.
Dallas hasn’t been good against the pass this season, ranking next to last in the NFL after allowing 331.7 yards per game so far. The defense does have one the league’s standout cornerbacks in Trevon Diggs, who will need to keep up his stellar play to help keep Moore from taking over.
Contain DEs Brian Burns and Haasan Reddick - The Panthers have collected the most sacks in the league through three games with 14. And although Burns doesn’t lead the team, he is their best defensive player. Burns also has one sack in each game this season and has gotten better in each year. The third-year edge rusher has increased his sack totals from 7.5 in his rookie season, to nine last year. He’s on pace to blow by his career high and enter double-digit sack territory.
Burns isn’t the only pass rusher that the Cowboys have to watch out for. Reddick leads the Panthers in sacks with 4.5 and gives the Panthers a solid 1-2 punch on the edges.
The Cowboys have gotten used to playing dominant pass rushers early this season and backup RT Terence Steele is in for another tough matchup. If Dallas doesn’t slow down Burns and Reddick, they have the potential to ruin the game plan for the offense.
Fluster Sam Darnold - This never changes no matter who is behind center for the opposition. The more you pressure the quarterback, the more likely you are to have success.
Darnold has only been sacked six times so far this season, but Dallas’ defense must like their matchup against former Cowboys lineman Cameron Erving at RT. Defensive ends Randy Gregory and Micah Parsons need to get to Darnold.
The Panthers’ QB has had a good start with his new team, but Darnold hasn’t handled pressure well in his career. The Cowboys failed to get that done in the last game that they played against Darnold in 2019, when he was with the New York Jets. In that game, Darnold threw for 338 yards and two scores as the Jets upset the Cowboys.
If Dallas can make Darnold uncomfortable, they’ll have a better shot at walking away with the win.
Keep the ball rolling - The Cowboys used a different game plan for each of their opponents through the first three weeks of the season. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has attacked the weaknesses of each defense so far. However, the Panthers lead the league in every major defensive category and are giving up just 45 yards rushing per game. On paper, Carolina doesn't have an obvious area to exploit.
The Cowboys have been running the ball well over the last few weeks and keeping defenses off balance. Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard don’t have to have 30 attempts in the run game, they just need to run the ball effectively enough to force the Panthers to commit to stopping it. If that happens, Dak Prescott and the receivers can open up the offense and keep the Cowboys on an offensive roll.
The Panthers have a great defense, but they have yet to play a team with the offensive firepower of the Cowboys. Dallas is getting ready to test the Panthers at every level of the defense, and it starts with the running game.
Do you foresee the Cowboys pinning the Panthers with their first loss in 2021? Share your predictions with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.