There is little more corrosive to offensive football than predictability. And there are two ways that happens: Dull play-calling or massive defensive disruption.
Place any offense — even of the NFL caliber — in constant predictable down-and-distance and that offense will fail. That’s what the Carolina Panthers did with remarkable efficiency in the first half of a 16-8 season-opening victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys never crossed midfield until roughly midway through the third quarter. They didn’t score until about six minutes into the fourth quarter. There were numerous Panthers defenders who played a role in that, but none more than middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Kuechly, who left the game late with what looked like a hyper-extended left knee but returned for the next series, finished with a team-high 13 tackles. Impressive as that sounds, even that number doesn’t convey just how Kuechly established this game’s tone early.
“We were never really able to move the ball” early, said Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. “When you’re behind the chains, it’s so hard — hard to move the ball when you’re first-and-15 or second-and-20. “
Prescott left no doubt who was central to that predicament.
“Luke is so the quarterback of that defense. He calls (opponent plays) out, and he’s been doing that for a long time,” Prescott described. “I was trying to spread (the ball) out, trying to get it out of the middle of the field.”
The middle of the field was a wasteland for the Cowboys early. A franchise with a tradition of huge offensive lines and dominant running games gained just 23 yards on the ground in the first half on 10 carries. Former Pro Bowler Zeke Elliott’s statistics were particularly telling: 18 yards on seven first-half carries, a 2.6 average and no run for more than 7 yards.
That is anything but Cowboys football on first and second downs and it had all sorts of tumble-down effect. Dallas entered halftime traling 10-0, never having converted a third down (0-of-5 attempts). The half was more of a mismatch than the score suggested, in that the Panthers outgained the Cowboys 209 to 60 in total yards; had Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey not fumbled 5 yards from the end zone early, the halftime margin might have been overwhelming.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett talked repeatedly post-game about how constantly his offense were in unmanageable down-and-distance situations, the sort that the most creative play-callers can’t just overcome in the long run.
“We didn’t get any rhythm going, and I think that was because of all the minus-(yardage) plays,” said Garrett, whose team finally crossed midfield on a Prescott scramble for 5 yards with about nine minutes left in the third quarter (a play finished with another Kuechkly tackle). “The bad down-and-distance situations early were the things we had to overcome and I thought the rhythm got better as went.
“Obviously, it’s not good enough if we scored eight points. That’s a good defensive team and we knew it would be a struggle.”
Garrett, a former NFL quarterback, pinpointed Kuechly as the disruptor.
“He’s just a great football player and he has been; all you have to do is flip a tape on to see that,” Garrett said. “He’s the leader of their defense, makes a ton of plays in the running game and a ton of plays in the passing game.
“He’s just all over the place: Very well prepared and very instinctive. It was important for us to run some misdirection stuff to try to get him off his game.”
Kuechly was the center of tall that, but Garrett added he had plenty of help up-front.
“Their style of defense is they’re going to put a lot of people down there; they’re an excellent front seven,’ Garrett said.
“Outstanding big defensive tackles and really good linebackers. We knew it was going to to be a struggle along the line of scrimmage. It’s so hard to establish the run when you’re digging out.”