Cleat Geeks

Straight Dealing: Panthers Win Over Cowboys Leaves Nasty Aftertaste

Panthers fans have to be feeling a bit down despite the 16-8 win over Dallas on Sunday. Don’t get me wrong, winning your home opener is a great feeling, especially when it’s against the Cowboys. My father-in-law and my best man from my wedding are Cowboys fans, and I just really wanted the Panthers to win this one. The carnage left behind by this win is definitely cause for tempered jubilation, though. First, there were key injuries to Greg Olsen, Daryl Williams, and Trai Turner. We also saw our old nemesis, the conservative offense that we have come to know from the Panthers when they get a lead, and once again they allowed an opponent back into a game that the Panthers had been controlling.  There were bright spots, as the defense and–you may need to sit down for this one–the special teams were good, and played a big part in this win. Overall, there was more to like than to not like, but the injuries and offensive risk aversion pose significant concerns leading up to this Sunday’s division showdown in Atlanta. All advanced stats are from Football Outsiders, and traditional stats are from ESPN.

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Photo by; The Boston Globe

Let’s get to the injuries first. G.O. looked really good early on, catching his first two targets for 33 yards and two first downs. He re-injured the same foot that caused him to miss eight games last year, but Jourdan Rodrigue of the Charlotte Observer is reporting that the team will not use an IR spot on Olsen, instead opting to keep him on the roster in hopes he can return after “a few” weeks of rest. Yikes. Olsen showed what a valuable asset he is to the offense when he is at full strength by corralling a couple of throws down the middle of the field before his injury. Young TEs Chris Manhertz and Ian Thomas played about 40 snaps each, but neither produced much. The main beneficiary (if you’re an optimist) of Olsen’s absence should be Devin Funchess. Funch played 57 snaps on Sunday and saw five targets, producing three catches for 41 yards. I think it is critical that Funchess picks up where he left off last season and gives Cam a reliable big target down the field. The Panther offense is at its best when Cam makes big plays in the passing game down the middle of the field and that is the biggest cost of losing G.O.

Cam went 2/5 for negative 7 yards on third downs on Sunday, which tells me that the team is taking the ball out of his hands when it needs him the most.

As if the Panthers needed any more bad news on the offensive line, Daryl Williams re-injured his right knee and Trai Turner is now in the concussion protocol. Williams had torn the MCL and dislocated the patella in his knee early in camp, and I was skeptical that he was healthy enough to suit up in Week One. I’m sure the Panthers’ medical staff did their due diligence with Williams, but in light of his re-injury, it begs the question of whether he was ready to play. Williams will undergo surgery and is likely to go on IR, per Rodrigue’s report. Turner played all 67 offensive snaps but has since entered the concussion protocol. If Turner can’t go on Sunday (which I think we would all support given the long-term effects of concussions), the line will be missing three starters. The Panthers signed veteran free agent Chris Clark, who last played for Houston in 2017. Clark can play both tackle spots, and has 53 starts in 108 career games. I expect to see Taylor Moton at LT, Greg Van Roten at LG, Ryan Kalil at C, Tyler Larsen at RG, and either Clark, recent acquisition Corey Robinson, or old standby Amini Silatolu at RT. Silatolu took the 13 snaps after Williams went down Sunday, and he has the most experience in the offense. He has also been a train wreck when on the field, so if Robinson or Clark are up to speed, perhaps we will see one of them.

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Photo by; ABC 11

The injuries to the offensive line are not the only negatives to come out of this game. The Panthers opened up in the first half with several nice throws down the field, and Cam was able to do whatever he wanted in the run game. The offense produced 209 yards and 11 first downs. The average time per play was 26.7 seconds, good for twelfth in the league.  With a 10-0 lead, the Panthers decided to slow things down and get super conservative in the second half. The offense only produced 84 yards and 7 first downs in the second half, and average time per play went up to 33.9 seconds, dead last in the league. Losing G.O. obviously affected the passing game, but this is a problem that Panther fans have become accustomed to dating back at least to 2015. Since it has now bridged two coordinators, I assume that it’s Ron Rivera dictating a strategy of sitting on leads and going in the tank in the process. Cam went 2/5 for negative 7 yards on third downs on Sunday, which tells me that the team is taking the ball out of his hands when it needs him the most. If Rivera and Turner don’t trust Cam to throw the ball down the field, the offense will continue to stall. And building a lead and then trying to punt and play defense to hang on to a win is a strategy that I think will bite the Panthers this year.

The offensive numbers were not great, and part of that is probably due to the aforementioned “play-not-to-lose” strategy. Cam was 15th in Defense Adjusted Yards over Average (DYAR), behind Case Keenum of all people. His line of 17/26 for 161 (no touchdowns, no picks) was not terrible, and when you tack on the 58 rushing yards and a TD, he played well enough for a win. But I just can’t shake the feeling that the Panthers are not getting the best out of Cam. Christian McCaffrey ran 10 times for 50 yards, and added 6 catches for 45 yards, but his fumble inside the 5-yard line on the opening drive was just brutal. His minus 11 DYAR as a runner means that the Panthers would have been better off starting just about any NFL backup. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that, but CMC has yet to live up to the number eight overall pick the Panthers spent on him last season.  CJ Anderson gained 35 yards on his 7 carries and registered a DVOA of 29.8%, but only played 12 snaps.  As versatile as CMC is, and with G.O. now definitely down for a while, I’d like to see more of CJA and CMC on the field at the same time.  Not only will it disguise the Panthers’ intentions (7 carries on 12 snaps is an indicator to the defense that when CJA is in, he’s likely to get the rock), but it gets more play makers on the field together at the same time. The receivers were not good, with Funchess finishing 39th in DYAR, and Jarius Wright finishing 71st, likely due to his nearly disastrous fumble in the second half. Torrey Smith played 51 snaps, but only had two targets and one catch. Curtis Samuel did not dress as he deals with medical issues, and Damiere Byrd didn’t play an offensive snap although he did leave the game with a knee injury.  Rookie first-round pick DJ Moore only played 17 offensive snaps and did not see a target come his way.  With the emphasis on “giving Cam more weapons” this off-season, it seems like the staff is failing to put those playmakers in position to make plays, including keeping the younger (and more explosive) guys on the bench.  The Panthers will have to work DJ Moore into the rotation and throw some deep balls to Torrey Smith if the offense is to play at a championship caliber.

Defensively, the Panthers were very good on Sunday posting six sacks on Dak Prescott and holding Zeke Elliott to 69 yards on 15 carries, and posting the fourth best yards allowed per drive average (21.3). Dallas does not project to have a fantastic offense this year, but holding them to 232 yards and eight points is a big win for Carolina. Dallas found more success running right than they did up the middle or to the left, and that makes sense because they had Zack Martin and La’el Collins on that side working on Mario Addison, who’s a really good pass rush end, but is only average against the run.  On the left side, KK Short absolutely terrorized rookie LG Connor Williams to the tune of two sacks and four QB hits.  Wes Horton delivered in pass rush with 1.5 sacks and two more QB hits, and delivered a tackle-for-loss in the run game.  Over the course of the game, the Panthers D Line seemed to wear Dallas’ O Line down, culminating in the sack/fumble that sealed the deal.  Julius Peppers only played 24 snaps, which is a good thing, and Bryan Cox played 25 snaps.  If Cox can deliver 25 solid snaps per game, the Panthers will likely continue to have second half success rushing the passer as the rotational D Line guys are just fresher than the opponent’s O Linemen, who play every down. Rookie Donte Jackson played every defensive snap at corner, made five tackles and held up in coverage.  Panthers fans should be very, very excited about that, because as we talked about in the defensive preview piece, stability at outside corner is something the Panthers desperately need.

The special teams were good for the Panthers, and would have been really good were it not for a botched PAT attempt. Specifically, the punt and punt return teams did their jobs well, and it reflected in the Panthers’ average starting field position (own 38, 3rd best in the league on Sunday), and the Cowboys’ (own 21, 30th).  Michael Palardy has been a great find for the team, as he averaged 47.8 per kick and dropped three of six punts inside the 20 with one touchback. This is a part of the game that is so often overlooked as we use the punt as a way to extend the commercial break and give ourselves more time to visit the fridge, but for a team like the Panthers who look to win by playing stout defense and not beating themselves (i.e. being very conservative) on offense, winning field position is a must.  The punt return team also shined, as Byrd and DJ Moore combined for 62 yards on 4 returns, better than 15 yards per attempt.  The Panthers have not had an explosive punt return man in some time, and new special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn certainly appears to have options in that regard now.

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Looking ahead to this Sunday at Atlanta, Vegas has the Panthers as 2.5 point underdogs. The biggest theme of this game will be injuries.  We covered the Panthers’ big dogs that will not play already, but the Falcons will match that with two of their top defenders and a big piece of their offense.  Safety Keanu Neal and LB Deion Jones are both on IR, and RB Devonta Freeman has a knee issue that has kept him out of practice all week.  Offensively, Matt Ryan played really poorly last week at Philadelphia.  His 21/43 for 251 yard, zero touchdown/one interception game produced a QBR of 12.7 and a DYAR of minus 128.  The only starting QB that played worse according to Football Outsiders was Nathan Peterman.  Ouch.  Matty Ice looked to Julio Jones 19 times on Thursday night, and had great success (10/169), but the Eagles adjusted by bringing a defender underneath Jones’ routes in the second half.  Julio has destroyed the Panthers historically, and this will be a good early test of Donte Jackson and the rest of the new additions to the secondary.  The Falcons defense did a decent job against the Eagles, particularly against the pass (10th in DVOA, only 119 yards allowed), but that was against Nick Foles.  The Eagles were also able to run the football with some success, especially in the second half.  The Falcons surrendered 113 yards and 2 TDs on the ground, and ranked 25th in DVOA against the run.  Losing Jones and Neal will hurt the run defense, but also the pass defense, since Jones is one of the best coverage LBs in the league.  This would look like a juicy matchup, but with the injuries up front and without G.O. to exploit the mismatch against Jones’ replacement, we have to wait and see if the Panthers can open up the offense enough to get a win.

Stay safe during Florence, Panthers fans!

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