Football fans everywhere are breathing a collective sigh of relief. The preseason is finally over, and real football has begun.
The Carolina Panthers host the Dallas Cowboys in their 2018 season-opener at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday at 4:25 p.m.
There will likely be a new logo at midfield, and a new owner in the luxury suites once occupied by Jerry Richardson.
Although, to be honest, David Tepper feels a little bit more like a sideline kind of guy.
On the field, the Panthers face a fearsome Dallas pass rush and a solid rushing attack behind third-year back Ezekiel Elliott.
The Panthers have a fast, athletic roster and a healthy quarterback in Cam Newton, who said this week that he “feels like a rookie” even though he’s entering his eighth NFL season.
But on the offensive line, questions remain. Carolina had to place starting left tackle Matt Kalil on injured reserve last Sunday, and starting right tackle Daryl Williams is still working back from a knee injury. Depth guard/tackle Amini Silatolu is as well.
So naturally, you have questions about this matchup. I picked the five best inquiries I got on Twitter this week. Let’s get to it.
▪ Question from @TLSPanthers: What are Ezekiel Elliott’s career stats vs. top-5 run defenses?
Answer: This is a great, outside-the-box question and one the Panthers have certainly considered this week. Carolina finished No. 3 in the NFL in rushing defense in 2017, and guess what? They only got better this offseason, adding defensive tackle Dontari Poe.
Elliott has faced top-5 rushing defenses five times in his two-year, 25-game NFL career. He totaled 105 carries for 371 yards and a touchdown, averaging 74.2 yards per game.
Hat tip to the Panthers communications department’s Will Bryan, a.k.a. @Pantherstatsguy, for the assist on this one.
Carolina will want to hold Elliott to even fewer yards than that average, because they want to make quarterback Dak Prescott and the Cowboys’ offense one-dimensional with a receiving corps that is missing tight end Jason Witten and receiver Dez Bryant.
▪ Question from @SchuttNation: Both teams seem to have beatable secondaries and O-line injury struggles. Will this game come down to pass rush? Who has the edge?
Answer: This is a tough one.
I wouldn’t call the Panthers’ secondary “beatable” so much as I’d call them “untested,” by the way. As an aside, this is a great game for a reshuffled defensive backfield to get its feet wet before heading to Atlanta next week.
And I think the game will more so be decided by whether Carolina can successfully stop the run.
But both teams’ offensive lines are plagued by injury. And the defensive lines each will go against feature some of the best pass rushers in the league.
Carolina’s right side will especially be tested by DeMarcus Lawrence, who had 14.5 sacks last season. According to Pro Football Focus, he also recorded an NFL-best 52 quarterback pressures in 2017.
For the Panthers, outside rushers Mario Addison and Julius Peppers will use their speed and power rush combination to try to gain early leverage against the tackles, while defensive tackles Kawann Short and Poe will pressure backup center Joe Looney and rookie left guard Connor Williams.
It’s safe to say the Panthers’ defensive linemen have been using the buzz about Lawrence as bulletin board material in the locker room this week. I’m not going to give one team the edge (pun intended), but I will leave you with a fantastic Addison quote from an exchange with a reporter.
Asked his thoughts on some people saying that Lawrence will be the best defensive end on the field on Sunday, Addison replied: “’They’ also said God was comin’ back in 2000!”
▪ Question from @PanthersFan_inAfrica: How significant is it to have three new coordinators for the Panthers? Are growing pains outweighed by the advantage of the surprise element (no film on them except preseason vanilla stuff)?
Answer: I think there are few ways to look at this.
It’s significant to have three new coordinators (offensive coordinator Norv Turner, defensive coordinator Eric Washington and special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn), but none of them are exactly “new.” Turner has been in the league since 1985, Washington was the Panthers defensive line coach since 2011 and Blackburn has been in the system as an assistant since 2016 (and was a player here before that).
Washington will still have to work through some growing pains in the job, but he’s been around long enough to have the communication part down as he finds his groove. He might have a little bit of an advantage in that his style is not yet established so he’s hard to plan for.
But there’s, like, 30 years of film on Turner. So with him, it’s more about efficient playcalling and better playmakers than any kind of unpredictability.
As far as Blackburn is concerned ... all I can say is, y’all had better stay in your seats this season when special teams takes the field.
▪ Question from @Actual_Matteson: How do you see the wide receiver balance playing out? Torrey (Smith) and (Devin) Funchess-heavy? Jarius Wright as a quiet assassin? D.J. (Moore) hitting the scene strong? Greg (Olsen) and Christian McCaffrey all day? What’s the inside scoop?
▪ Question from @DereksDaycare: When are we going to get (kicker) Graham Gano a touchdown so he can kick the ball to a child in the upper deck?
Answer: This would be remarkable. A whole new level to “Sunday giveaways,” literally.