Carolina Panthers

Defense paces Carolina Panthers in season-opening 16-8 win over Dallas Cowboys

Somewhere, Thomas Davis is smiling.

Although the linebacker missed the Carolina Panthers’ season opener Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, his teammates more than picked up the slack defensively. Carolina didn’t allow Ezekiel Elliott and the rest of the Dallas offense to cross midfield until after halftime, limiting the Cowboys to just 232 total yards en route to a 16-8 victory.

First-year defensive coordinator Eric Washington stressed stopping the run to his unit all week, and it was clear from Dallas’ first possession that Carolina’s defenders took that message to heart. Running back Ezekiel Elliott, who has led the NFL in rushing yards per game each of the past two seasons, was almost a complete non-factor all game, finishing with 69 yards on 15 carries, including a meager 18 yards before halftime.

But for all of that defensive fortitude, Carolina’s offense wasn’t quite able to put the game away. Christian McCaffrey’s fumble in the red zone cost the team a shot to take an early lead, and several other drives stalled out because of penalties.

When Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott scampered into the end zone in the fourth quarter and the Cowboys subsequently converted the two-point conversion, it made it a one-possession game at 16-8. With about four minutes left, it was up to Carolina’s defense once again to stave off a Dak Prescott comeback attempt and maintain a lead.

That is exactly what they did. Sacks by Wes Horton and Kawann Short on the Cowboys’ penultimate drive cost Dallas a shot to tie the game, and with less than two minutes left, defensive end Mario Addison forced a fumble that was recovered by Captain Munnerlyn to seal a Week 1 victory.

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Three who mattered

Cam Newton: His first game in Norv Turner’s offense wasn’t perfect, but he consistently made plays to keep Carolina drives alive. He finished 17-of-26 passing for 161 yards and added 13 carries for 59 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

Luke Kuechly: His six tackles in Carolina’s first two defensive possessions were impressive enough, but that early performance was only an indication of more to come. Even considering he was shaken up some in the fourth quarter, he ended the game with 13 tackles.

Mario Addison: The defensive end got pressure on Dak Prescott all day and ultimately got to him when the Panthers most needed it. With less than two minutes left, he forced a fumble that sealed Carolina’s win.

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Despite tearing his MCL and dislocating the patella in his right knee in the end of July, right tackle Daryl Williams still started Sunday’s season-opener. He struggled at times against Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence, earning a holding call in the first half. Williams ultimately was helped off the field with a right knee injury midway through the fourth quarter.

McCaffrey, who coaches this summer said they envisioned touching the ball 20-25 times a game, lost a fumble on his first carry of the season. McCaffrey had two fumbles (losing one) in 197 touches from scrimmage all of last year.

Dallas ran 22 plays in the first half for an average of 2.7 yards/play, but not a single one came in Panthers territory. Dallas was also 0-for-5 on third down in the first half and recorded just 60 net yards, compared to 209 for Carolina.

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Elliott was one of Carolina’s defensive focuses all week, as the team preached gap integrity and tackling by committee. And for that effort, they were largely successful — Elliott finished the game with 15 carries for 69 yards and one touchdown.

Even though Carolina picked up a victory, it came with a cost as the team lost two offensive starters to injury. Tight end Greg Olsen left the game with a right foot injury at the end of the first quarter and did not return. Offensive tackle Daryl Williams, who was rehabbing a knee injury sustained during training camp in July, went down in the fourth quarter and had to be carted off the field. Linebacker Luke Kuechly also had to be helped off the field late in the fourth quarter with an apparent knee injury.

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Worth mentioning

With his second-quarter takedown of Prescott, defensive tackle Kawann Short became the first DT in Panthers history to record 30 career sacks. He recorded a second sack in the fourth quarter.

Second-year fullback Alex Armah scored his first NFL touchdown at the beginning of the third quarter, putting Carolina ahead 16-0. But instead of giving away the football to a fan, as Newton does customarily, Armah kept the ball and happily ran to the sidelines.

The Panthers fudged the snap on the extra point attempt after their second touchdown, but on further review, Amini Silatolu’s foot got in the way of the snap. Long snapper J.J. Jansen still hasn’t had a bad snap since the season-opener in 2010.

They said it

“I don’t blame him ... I was just very happy for Alex.” – Ron RIvera, on fullback Alex Armah keeping the football he used to score his first NFL touchdown instead of making it a traditional Sunday Giveaway.

“Daryl’s is not a reinjury.” – Rivera on a knee injury for offensive tackle Daryl Williams, who suffered a torn MCL and a dislocated kneecap in training camp but returned for Week 1.