If there was ever a matchup of two teams that desperately needed a win, Sunday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., would be an excellent example.
Both the visiting Dallas Cowboys (2-3) and the home team Carolina Panthers (1-4) are in last place in their respective divisions (the Panthers are actually tied for last). Dallas has dropped its last two games while Carolina its last three.
The urgency to win goes much further than records and losing streaks; both the Cowboys and Panthers entered the 2012 season with high hopes and now stare up at division leaders. Dallas is just one game back in the loss column, well within striking distance if the team can turn things around.
Carolina, on the other hand, already sits four games back in the NFC South and must string together many wins quickly if it hopes to catch the Atlanta Falcons.
For the Panthers to win at home on Sunday, here are a couple of ideas that they may want to follow.
Establish the Run
The Dallas defense is somewhat stout, ranking 13th against the run and No. 2 versus the pass. Since the Cowboys only allow just over 181 yards through the air per game, and Cam Newton has connected on just 52 percent of his passes over the last three games, Carolina is going to want to establish the run.
The three-headed running monster of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Newton will need to get rolling often on Sunday, and there’s an area of strength versus weakness they’ll want to exploit.
According to Football Outsiders, The Panthers are best in the NFL at running behind their right tackle, Byron Bell. Carolina’s adjusted line yards over right tackle are 7.10 per carry. On the other side of the ball, Dallas ranks worst in the league, giving up 7.20 yards per carry when opposing teams run in that direction.
That sounds like a match made in heaven, except for the fact that because of Ryan Kalil’s season-ending injury, Carolina is going to have to shift its offensive line around, according to the Charlotte Observer.
Bell is moving from right tackle to right guard, with Garry Williams taking over at Bell’s old tackle spot. Geoff Hangartner will move from right guard to center.
Bell hasn’t played guard since high school, but he said the move will be seamless. It will have to be for the Panthers to have success running behind him on Sunday.
Hangartner’s run-blocking score, according to Pro Football Focus (paywall), leaves much to be desired. In 240 snaps at guard, he has a minus-seven rating, the worst of the starters for Carolina on the line.
The Panthers are being forced to shuffle the line, and there may be some growing pains in this first week without Kalil. For a better chance to beat Dallas, those growing pains need to be as minimal as possible.
Get Pressure on Romo
Dallas quarterback Tony Romo doesn’t get sacked very frequently. Only four quarterbacks with 150 or more drop backs have been sacked fewer than the nine times Romo’s been dropped.
But his completion percentage drops almost 10 percentage points when he’s under pressure. Pro Football Focus (paywall) has a proprietary stat that looks at accuracy of a quarterback while under pressure. The figure looks at completion percentage while under pressure and counts dropped passes as completions.
Romo ranks 17th in the league with a 60.8 score in PFF’s accuracy percentage score. Not only does he become much less accurate as a passer while under pressure, only Michael Vick has thrown more interceptions while under pressure than Romo, who has tossed four picks while under duress.
Charles Johnson is the best Carolina has to offer at rushing the quarterback. Johnson has 3.5 sacks and ranks fourth in the league, according to Pro Football Focus (paywall), with a 13.1 pass-rushing productivity score, a statistic that takes into account sacks, quarterback hits and hurries.
Johnson rushes almost exclusively from the left side and will face Doug Free on Sunday, the Dallas right tackle.
Who will win on Sunday?
Free’s allowed just one sack this year, but he has also been responsible for two quarterback hits and 16 hurries. His 93.1 pass-blocking efficiency score from Pro Football Focus (paywall) places him at No. 45 in the offensive tackle rankings. This is an advantageous matchup for the Panthers.
Left defensive tackle Dwan Edwards is also capable of getting after the quarterback. He has 3.5 sacks, just like Johnson.
Edwards will face off against Mackenzy Bernadeau on Sunday, and Bernadeau ranks No. 49 among offensive guards on PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency rankings. He’s allowed 12 total pressures (11 hurries plus one sack) this season. Only 10 guards in the league have given up more.