Carolina Panthers vs. Dallas Cowboys: Key Matchups

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

The Carolina Panthers season pre-bye week has been nothing less than a disappointment. During the offseason, whispers of playoff berth and super bowl aspirations filled the air. Some of us here at the CSR knew better, knowing the glaring weaknesses and holes of our team, yet we all remained hopeful for a fast start to the season. Sitting at 1-4 after the bye week, the Panthers season is on the brink of being over in terms of playoff hopes. The Panthers must win this game to stay competitive in the NFC South. Opposite the Panthers lies a team with a very similar scenario. At 2-3, the Dallas Cowboys are always the brunt of criticism when it comes to not living up to expectations, choking, etc. The Cowboys looked to be on track for a great season after an impressive win over the New York Giants, yet have seen the all too familiar disappointments and near-misses of victories this season. Both teams look to right the ship, and we will take a look at the important players to do so.

Josh Norman/Captain Munnerlyn vs. Miles Austin/Dez Bryant

On this matchup, its like looking at opposite ends of the spectrum. On one end, you have two late round picks, both of which have gotten their share of criticism for some bad performances. Josh Norman will be making his 6th start at cornerback as a pro, while Munnerlyn will be making his 24th start (this stat can be misleading due to the number of times the Panthers lined up in nickel packages to start games in the past). Both are young, and both will have their hands full Sunday. On the other end, you have a former first round pick paired with a two time Pro Bowler at wide receiver. Austin and Bryant are one of the more potent combinations of receivers in the league on paper, though this season Bryant and Austin have had their shares of ups and downs. This matchup is particularly important because Demarco Murray will be missing the game, leaving the talented but inconsistent Felix Jones to eat up most of the carries on the ground. The Cowboys will look to try and get the passing game going early, and will want to exploit the mismatches of Munnerlyn on Bryant and Norman on Austin. For one, Munnerlyn's size will not work in his favor this game, we've seen what big, tall receivers can do to Munnerlyn, and the rest of the secondary for that matter. And, as stated by James in his Defensive Preview, Norman could have some problems with Miles Austin. The corners are going to need help from the pass rush this game, and the pass rush will need the corners to stay close to the receivers, enough to make Romo hold the ball longer than he wants to. And we will want to monitor Dez Bryant, who is listed as questionable. If he doesn't play, Kevin Ogletree will fill in.

Doug Free vs. Charles Johnson

Charles Johnson will need to be a force this game. Johnson has only recorded a sack in one game, Atlanta, where he recorded 3.5 sacks. However, Johnson has been able to get in the backfield and provide some consistent pressure. And it has shown. While Johnson has only recorded 3.5 sacks in 5 games (and really, all of them came from one), the rest of the defensive line has combined to record 9.5 sacks (13 total, and throw in another sack from Josh Thomas for 14). The pass rush as a whole has been way more effective, and it seems that when teams try to take away Charles Johnson, either Dwan Edwards, Greg Hardy, or Frank Alexander is going to get through. The Cowboys offensive line has allowed 9 sacks this season, but in games such as the Giants and Bears games, we have seen Romo under pressure for a great deal of the game. If the Panthers want to stifle the 6th ranked passing game of the Cowboys, they have to get after Romo.

Steve Smith vs. Morris Claiborne

This matchup could prove to be the most interesting of them all. The Cowboys technically have the number one ranked pass defense in the league, but one could argue that this stat could be skewed due to turnover troubles and opposing teams' starting field positions as a result. Make no mistake however, this team has a very good defense, especially with pass rushers like Demarcus Ware coming after the quarterback. Claiborne is listed as probable with a knee injury, so he will definitely play, though the knee might be a problem. Claiborne is a rookie at cornerback, and we all know Steve Smith likes to eat rookie corners for breakfast. Just ask Patrick Peterson. On the flip side you have Brandon Carr, equaling out to a solid but not unbeatable secondary. Steve Smith will look to get involved early, and Claiborne has yet to face a receiver quite like Steve Smith in his impressive rookie campaign. If Claiborne can contain Smith, it could be a long day for Panthers fans.

Demarcus Ware vs. Jordan Gross

With the loss of Ryan Kalil, the Panthers offensive line looks battered and ripe for the picking. The Cowboys defense is 24th in the league with 10 sacks, 6 of which are coming from Demarcus Ware. The Panthers need to keep Cam upright in this game for the passing attack to work, and the offensive line will need to show up for the running game to work as well. Two multi-time pro bowlers will be facing off on Cam's blindside, and the Panthers offensive efforts will directly correlate to how this matchup turns out. Byron Bell and Garry Williams on the right side will have their hands full with Anthony Spencer, if he plays. But make no mistake, the Cowboys will try to get after Cam as much as they can, whether it be with a 4-man rush to an 8 man rush. They want to make Cam uncomfortable and indecisive in the pocket, hopefully the Cam we know and love shows up to this one, folks.

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