Here is the season-opening edition of Tale of Tape. This week’s opponent is the Carolina Panthers. Right out of the gate, this game will carry the weight of playoff implications. While no team not named the Browns will be eliminated in week 1 (not really, but…), this is an all-important conference tilt against a team with the same playoff aspirations as Dallas. These games with the NFC South will figure into late-season tie-break scenarios. That increases the pressure on both teams to get off to a fast start at the expense of the other.
Let’s look at how these teams compare by position. We already discussed the Offensive side of the ball and now we’ll make a comparison of each team’s defense and special teams. You can check out part one here.
The Panthers under Ron Rivera have had a long-standing reputation as one of the top defensive units in the NFL. Like the old Bears defenses for which Rivera played, they have been led by a ferocious defensive line unit. Kawann Short is one of the premier inside players in the entire league even if he is often overlooked when analysts mention guys like Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins. Rest assured that the offensive linemen that must face Short know exactly who he is and how quickly he can destroy a game plan. Carolina upgraded an already good run front by signing Dontari Poe away from division rival Atlanta this past offseason. The defensive ends are the seemingly ageless Julius Peppers and another woefully underrated player in Mario Addison who “only” put up double-digit sack totals in 2017. Carolina is a little thin behind its excellent starting group but that first four are as good as any in the league
Dallas is starting the season once again with David Irving suspended. Tyrone Crawford is highly respected and, being the team player that he is, has once again accepted the team’s request to move inside to defensive tackle. This after preparing his body all offseason to play end. DeMarcus Lawrence appears to be ready to build upon his dominant 2017. He is motivated to prove he is not just a one-year franchise tag guy and the “secure the bag” on a long-term contract with lots of zeroes and commas. A rough 2017 effectively killed off the good vibes about Maliek Collins building upon his good rookie season but it remains to be seen if he can recover enough from a second foot surgery to become a force on the D-line. Camp breakout Antoine Woods will be asked to plug run lanes but the star of the defensive line in August has been Randy Gregory. Gregory has done more than flash his insane athletic ability, he has shown increased strength and consistency at the point of attack.
There is a ton of upside and optimism about the “Hot Boyz” in Dallas but they still need to prove it on the field. With that in mind, this is an…
Sean Lee has finally been allowed to take off the bubble wrap as the Cowboys get ready to face the Panthers. He has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most cerebral defensive players in the NFL. Staying healthy has been the only thing keeping Lee from becoming a perennial All-Pro. He is coming off another injury-riddled season where the team’s defense fell apart in his absence. Jaylon Smith exceeded the realistic expectations of almost everyone outside the Star in Frisco during 2017. He was also overexposed by playing way too many snaps while still paying with a brace to prevent his drop-foot. This offseason has revealed that Smith might be ready to play like the monster he was at Notre Dame. He has been the most consistently excellent defensive performer throughout the entire offseason. His progression has given the team the ability to bring along their talented first round pick Leighton Vander Esch along slowly.
LVE might not yet be ready to be a full-time player, but he is practicing, and he looks like he is moving in the right direction. Joe Thomas has been a revelation since he was picked up and has been a stand-out performer during the preseason games. Most camp observers have singled out Damien Wilson as an outstanding performer for his work improved consistency as well. This is as fast, deep and talented a group the Cowboys have had in the linebacker room since they were winning super bowls in the early 90’s.
One of the few players that can be legitimately seen as a peer or even better than Sean Lee plies his trade for the Carolina Panthers. Luke Kuechly is likely the best off-ball linebacker in the NFL (apologies to Bobby Wagner). He leads a good group even with Thomas Davis sitting out due to a suspension for PEDs. Shaq Thompson is a very good football player in his own right and will be a load for any offense to handle standing next to Kuechly. The rest of the group is unknown and unproven, but they have an excellent leader to learn from and lean on at the defense’s 2nd level.
Even one of the few weeks Sean Lee won’t be the best off-ball linebacker on the field, the absence of Davis and the continued growth of Jaylon Smith & Damien Wilson makes this a very slight…
Carolina has been trying to recover in the secondary since they inexplicably let Josh Norman go and their defensive backs fell apart. Safety Mike Adams is a solid consistent performer that leads the back-end of the Carolina defense, but their corners are very dependent upon their defensive line dominating to cover up their lack of experience. The starting corners are both 2nd round picks but rookie Donte Jackson and 2016 pick James Bradberry have a good draft pedigree but are unproven and Bradberry has shown some inconsistencies when he doesn’t get an assist from his d-line getting consistent pressure. Captain Munnerlyn is still a solid slot corner going into his 10th season. He is a stabilizing veteran force that the Panthers will lean on to help them through the inconsistencies expected from their youth in the secondary.
Dallas looked at their 2016 play in the defensive backfield and decided to move on from players they felt had reached their peak. They utilized the 2017 draft to add talent to that area and drafted Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods to upgrade the team’s back-end potential. Awuzie and Woods earned starting spots in the offseason while Lewis battled all the way through August for the nickel corner spot with Anthony Brown. The most notable change in the team’s secondary, however, has come in with new defensive passing coordinator, Kris Richard. Richard promptly moved Byron Jones back to corner and Jones has flourished in camp and the preseason with the change. The Cowboys are hopeful that what appears to be a very talented group will get similar help to its Carolina counterparts with an effective pass rush. Unfortunately for Dallas, they are extremely banged up at the safety position with their desired starting free safety still working off to the side of practice with trainers while he nurses a hamstring injury. Woods probably won’t play the first couple of weeks and Kavon Frazier is trying to play through a shoulder injury he suffered late in the preseason.
These are two young groups. The Cowboys are more talented in the secondary, but the Panthers are much healthier. Even with a belief in Richard’s ability to coach up his charges, this is a slight …
Carolina has Graham Gano handling it’s kicking game for a 6th season. He has been good for the team and they have confidence in his leg strength as they tend to play a grind-it-out style the leads to a good amount of long field goal attempts. The Panthers have their punting and holding duties being handled by 3rd year punter Michael Palardy and they are in good shape with the return services of Damiere Byrd. Carolina got a good performance in 2017 from its coverage units and was considered one of the best in the league last year after being in the bottom half of the league the previous couple of seasons. They will look to stay productive in the 3rd phase as they start the season at home.
All the current conversation about the Dallas Cowboys specialists has centered around new kicker Brett Maher who beat out Dan Bailey in a kicking competition that no one outside the Cowboys coaching group even knew was taking place. The pressure is on Maher to be as steady and reliable as the guy he replaces. His inexperience is unsettling and there is the very real possibility that Dallas ends up regretting this decision late in the season if Maher can’t connect on game winners like Bailey regularly did for the team. They do have one of the best punters in the NFL. Chris Jones has gotten better every year for the Cowboys and has the added advantage of being a left-footed punter. Most coaches believe this makes a difference to the returner’s ability to pick up the ball and makes it more difficult to well. He has become a fan favorite more for his “Punt-isher” hits but he has grown into a pro bowl worthy performer heading into his 7th season. He and long snapper LP Ladouceur will give the new kicker a reliable battery that puts him in the best position to succeed. The team is hoping that the addition of former 1st round Rams selection, Tavon Austin can be a game changer on punt returns and will probably have a rotation of guys handling kick returns duties. The Cowboys’ coverage units under Rich Bisaccia were routinely top performing units league-wide. Bisaccia has gone west to Oakland with some of the team’s best special teamers and it remains to be seen if the 2018 units will perform as well under new special teams coordinator, Keith O’Quinn.
Change is a necessity in the NFL and the Cowboys are working through a ton of as they embark on the 2018 season. With the uncertainty surrounding kicking and coverage in Dallas, this is an…
The Cowboys and Panthers are similar teams at the edge of the best teams in the NFC heading into the 2018 season. This opening week showdown may have significant ramifications on tiebreakers to determine if either, both or neither of these teams play late into January. Now that we have compared the teams, unit by unit, we will finish by looking at the top three matchups that will decide the outcome on Sunday afternoon.
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