The outcome of these four matchups could go a long way in determining the Cowboys’ fate against the Carolina Panthers in Week 7. . .
RT Doug Free vs DE Charles Johnson
Doug Free has been in a battle with right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau to be the Cowboys’ worst offensive lineman on the season. As I mentioned in my “What To Watch” post, Charles Johnson has lined up on the left side of the Panthers’ defense on 88.4 percent of his snaps this season, meaning he’ll be rushing against Free more often than not. If Free is consistently left alone to block Carolina’s top pass-rusher, the Panthers will win that battle.
WR Miles Austin vs CB Josh Norman
Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble has been targeted at a rate lower than every cornerback in the NFL—once every 12.6 coverage snaps. That’s particular amazing because Gamble has shadowed No. 1 wide receivers. My hunch is that he’ll play primarily on Dez Bryant this Sunday.
That leaves Norman to cover Miles Austin. Norman hasn’t been poor in 2012 by any means, allowing 8.23 YPA on 31 targets. Still, he’s not playing at the level of Gamble, and I think the ‘Boys will be able to get some things going through the air this week. Look for Austin to utilize his quickness to beat Norman fairly regularly.
OLB DeMarcus Ware vs LT Jordan Gross
Gross has allowed a pressure rate of just 2.99 percent this year. In comparison, I’ve tracked Doug Free and Tyron Smith as yielding pressure rates of 7.83 percent and 4.61 percent, respectively. I still think the Panthers will double-team Ware when Cam Newton drops back to pass, but perhaps they think Gross’s outstanding level of play means they can get away with leaving him on an island with Ware from time to time. That would be a mistake.
Cowboys’ Blitz vs QB Cam Newton
Newton, who has thrown five interceptions on the season, has a 38.7 completion percentage when pressured. The Cowboys probably aren’t going to be able to get much pressure without blitzing, so I really think you’ll see a more aggressive game plan from Rob Ryan than in the past few weeks. Newton loves to hang onto the ball to make things happen with his legs or arm; that gives him big-play potential like the Cowboys haven’t seen this season, but it also makes him susceptible to turning over the ball. If there was ever a game that the Cowboys’ defense could give the offense a short field, this is it.