X-Factor: The Offensive Line
Nothing will effect the Panthers more this week than the response of the offensive line to the loss of Pro-Bowl Center Ryan Kalil. Not only does his loss me we lose one of the best Centers in the game, but we are forced to shift RG Geoff Hangartner over in order to compensate. While the drop off from Kalil to Hangartner is concerning, my real issue is the really along the entire offensive line. Amini Silatolu will have to adjust to a new center beside him as a rookie with all the unique challenges that have faced him this season. I think Silatolu will take some time to adjust, but in the end he should be fine as he still has another former Pro-Bowler beside him in LT Jordan Gross.
No, the real issue is going to be on the right side of the line which has been anything but stellar. We've had both Byron Bell and Gary Williams starting at RT with some very dicey results, but now we will be adding another factor to this delicate chemistry by moving Bell from RT to RG.
All in all, it's not exactly a recipe for success. Anyone who remembers our 2003 Super Bowl run will remember that we did not sustain a single injury on the offensive line for the entire year. That consistency is what helped allow us to get to the Super Bowl and it is sorely missed this season.
Air Battle: Carolina Passing vs. Dallas Secondary
By now, we pretty much know that our passing game is kinda hit or miss. On some days we see a poised, collected, decisive, calm Cam Newton who is able to make some really dynamite throws. Other games... he's just off. Wildly off in some cases (like last weekend). On the whole, we really control our destiny when it comes to this aspect of the game. I was bitterly disappointed that we did not get more people involved last week other than Steve Smith, particularly when Greg Olsen had lots of open room all game.
The Cowboys feature an upgraded secondary with the addition of Morris Claiborne, who I know we're all familiar with. Claiborne has delivered for the Boys thus far, surrendering only 2 TDs, and even that should only be one. DaMarcus Ware proves to be a handful for teams as he rushes the QB and this will pose a real weakness for us as we are featuring an offensive line on the right side that consists of both Byron Bell and Gary Williams. Yikes...
Ultimately, I just think the pass rush with a battered offensive line is going to really hamper our ability to protect Cam. If he is pressured, it's likely we'll see more of Bad Cam and less of Good Cam. I'm hoping that the Cowboys will respect Cam's ability to make plays with his legs, thus giving him room to throw the ball.
Trench Warfare: Carolina's Ground Game vs. Dallas's Front Seven
We already talked a little bit about DeMarcus Ware for the Cowboys. Luckily, the Cowboys are little more than average when it comes to their run defense and I truly think we should try to exploit this. The Panthers have actually managed to put together a pretty decent run game lately, chewing up 140 yards per game on the ground since our Week 1 debacle. Getting the ground game involved early and often is going to be key (see Jaxon's article for more about why this is so critical for us).
Again, it'll all come down to how our makeshift line holds up though... and I simply have no optimism in Gary Williams and Byron Bell in being able to keep the running lanes open. This will allow Dallas to keep an eye out on the left side of the line with their linebackers, essentially making things much harder on what would otherwise be a very favorable match up for us.
Bonus X-Factor: David Gettis Returns
If there is a silver lining this week, it is that we will finally get to see WR David Gettis in action again for the first time since his rookie campaign. Now, whether or not that will have an effect on the game (assuming he is in playing condition) remains to be seen. The young speedster was one of the brightest moments of one of the darkest seasons in the last decade for the Panthers, but it has been nearly a year and a half since we've seen him play and we've never seen what he's capable of in this offense.
In this Air Coryell style offense, David Gettis could be a big hit. He is a fast, tall WR with a brutal double move (remember how he broke Nate Clemens's ankles for his first TD?) that can really stretch the field. But so far, we've seen a lot of potential, but not enough to project results. In truth, there are just too many unknowns to be sure and anyone who tells you otherwise is a homer or a hater. How will he perform in the new system? How long will it take his chemistry with Cam to develop? How will his injury effect his speed? So many questions, and the only way they can be answered is on the field.
And we're not even 100% sure he will be on the field this weekend.