What we learned from the Cowboys-Panthers, including the most important Dallas win statistic
The Cowboys made another statement on Sunday, handing the Panthers their first loss with a decisive 36-28 victory.
Managing Carolina’s pass rush
The most important number in Sunday’s game was zero. That’s the number of times the Panthers have fired Dak Prescott. Carolina entered the game with the NFL’s best pass rush in three weeks, yet the Cowboys managed to keep them quiet all afternoon.
The Panthers have been one of the most aggressive defenses in the league this year. In their first three games, they had been very effective in executing pressure patterns that allowed free runners to play the quarterback. One way to handle this as an offense is for the quarterback to hot throw and quickly remove the ball from his hands.
There’s nothing wrong with doing this, but as an offense, if your only response to the blitz is to throw a hot throw, defense can dictate how you play. They can force quick throws that prevent an explosive attack like the Cowboys from attacking downstream. Dallas didn’t want to do this. Instead, they picked their moments, saved more to protect themselves, and then attacked.
On Amari Cooper’s touchdown in the third quarter that gave Dallas the lead for good, the Panthers launched a blitz. The Cowboys were ready:
It’s a perfect Prescott throw. This was only possible through protection, however.
From the All-22 angle, you can see the Cowboys used six-man protection. Running back Tony Pollard did a great job stepping inside to meet the Panthers blitzers on the line of scrimmage. This gave Prescott the time and space to make that throw. Look at that clean pocket just as Dak had just started her movement:
The other element here is that this route required a double movement of Cooper. Again, it took time. Because the Panthers were blitzing, the cornerback above Cooper (CJ Henderson) was playing a bit flat, ready to jump on a quick pitch he was anticipating because of the blitz. When that didn’t happen, Cooper was able to stack on top of him:
Dallas beat another Carolina blitz for a touchdown later in the quarter. Again, this was a six-man protection with Pollard meeting the blitz on the line of scrimmage, giving Prescott the chance to throw:
Prescott’s fake pump also helped freeze the pass rush for a split second, which added protection and gave him time to attack down the field.
It was a great game to counter the blitz because Dallas faked a fast, flat route to tight end Dalton Schultz with two receivers appearing to be blocking for him (a route concept to beat the blitz). But receiver Cedrick Wilson wasn’t blocking.
Panthers defenders bit off Prescott’s false pump, again anticipating a quick throw in response to the blitz, and it created the opening for Wilson:
Call a great game
The three-headed monster of Mike McCarthy, Kellen Moore and Prescott has gelled all season. Approach and playing calls have been excellent, and Prescott’s abilities at the line of scrimmage have also been a major part of the Cowboys’ success. The above touchdown, for example, came from Prescott acknowledging the blitz look and putting offense in the right play on the line.
Dallas played with excellent balance for the third straight game, finishing with 30 called points and 24 assists, not counting the QB’s knees. That number was 17 assists and 14 points in the first half, before the game got out of hand. Many of the Cowboys’ races met two safety glances, with Prescott making the decision to run to the line when Dallas had a power play.
On the one hand, the success of the Cowboys’ hasty attack was down to the numbers game Prescott played and won. On the other hand, the offensive line constantly dominated in the trenches.
Watch Dallas reestablish the line of scrimmage on Ezekiel Elliott’s 47-yard run in the 3rd quarter:
The Cowboys finished with 245 rushing yards on 34 carries (7.2 yards per carry). This is how you set up heavy defense with the intention of creating chaos.
Inner pressure on Darnold
On the other side of the ball, this game boiled down to the Cowboys pass rush. Even when Dallas at first seemed to have a hard time keeping Sam Darnold from burning them with his legs, they still received good pressure. The Cowboys sacked him three times in the first half. In the third quarter, Dan Quinn started to build up the blitz pressure, which helped open the game.
As expected, the goal of Quinn’s game plan was to attack inside, in Darnold’s face. In Carolina’s first practice of the second half, he brought Micah Parsons and safety Jayron Kearse midway through the 3rd and 7. The pressure forced Darnold to throw an inaccurate pitch to an open receiver for a miss.
During Carolina’s next practice, Dallas kept up the pressure against Darnold again. This time it ended in a sack on the third try.
Watch how Parsons took the center and left the guard with him. He is an absolute handful to deal with in protection. Quinn used Parsons all over the pitch on Sunday, but he’s seen more time than the past few weeks stand in the middle and be the starting point for many successful stunts. He also landed a sack in the fourth quarter in a blitz.
Coverage to match the pressure
As the game progressed and the Cowboys were able to put more and more pressure on Darnold, they started to be more aggressive in high school. Trevon Diggs’ second interception occurred on a third descent where he sat on DJ Moore’s road despite no help over it. He did it because Dallas was bringing another blitz and he expected a quick pitch.
Note that this was another pressure look inside with Parsons lining up again on center:
Here’s the iso of Diggs sitting on Moore’s road, ready to pounce:
No more Quinn cover disguise
A good defense disguise comes from understanding the flow of the game, knowing your own tendencies and breaking them at the right time. Quinn has been brilliant in this department so far this season. He continues to do a great job of mixing up a timely disguise to get rid of the opposing offense.
In Diggs’ first interception (another third down), the Cowboys again showed a pressure look indicating they might be blitzing on the inside. They also appeared to be under human cover because Security Kearse (No 27) followed tight end Tommy Tremble (No 82) to the perimeter and then back inside, an indicator of man cover .
At the snap, however, the Cowboys fell into zonal coverage and rushed just four:
The disguise clearly happened to Darnold. Either he didn’t recognize after the shot that it was an area instead of a man’s blanket, or he was confused by the disguise and made a bad decision. Either way, he threw that ball like Diggs wasn’t there:
Another contributing factor was the pressure Darnold was probably feeling nearby as the pocket narrowed around him. Randy Gregory (# 94) punched Darnold right after he pitched. Gregory was a thorn in the Panthers’ side all afternoon, finishing with two sacks on top of that pressure.
There are several reasons the Cowboys are playing so well right now. Their plan and talent work tremendously together, and they establish themselves as a top team on both sides of the ball in every game they play. Next up: the New York Giants.
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