Panthers Trying to Establish Themselves Among the Game's Elite

Preview look at CAR/DAL and PIT/GB


Line: Cowboys -4, Total: 51.5


  • Protecting Dak & Darnold

The Panthers franchise began play in the NFL in 1995 and one season later, the club established its franchise-record with 60 sacks, a mark that was tied in 2013, but never surpassed. After three games this season, defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s unit has already totaled an NFL-best 14 QB sacks, which puts it on a 16n-game pace of 75 (though this will be the first NFL season with 17 games, putting the team in position to set a new franchise record). That’s also a huge turnaround from 2020, when the team had 29 for the season (23rd in the NFL). Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott was sacked once in Week 1, twice in Week 2, and then was dropped four times last week in the team’s win over Philadelphia. A huge key in this game for the Cowboys will keeping Dak clean, and getting after Carolina’s QB, Sam Darnold. Darnold, like Prescott, has been sacked more times with each successive game -- once in Week 1, twice in Week 2 and three times in Week 3, all Panthers victories. Dallas is without its best pass rusher, DeMarcus Lawrence, and has gotten to the opposing QB just three times this season, tied for the fewest in the league.

  • Winning the Turnover Battle

After posting an ugly 5-11 record against-the-spread last season, Dallas has covered all three of its games in 2021. Many people might look at last season’s mark and think that it was because of the absence of Dak Prescott for most of the season; however, the Cowboys failed to cover in any of Prescott’s five starts before he got hurt. Conversely, Carolina has been one of the strongest teams ATS over the past year. Since the Week 2 loss at Tampa Bay last year in which the Panthers failed to cover, they have been on a 12-5 run against the number, including a 3-0 record this season.


  • Battle of ATS Unbeatens

After posting an ugly 5-11 record against-the-spread last season, Dallas has covered all three of their games on the young 2021 season. Many people might look at last season’s mark and think that it was because of the absence of Dak Prescott for most of the season, however, the Cowboys failed to cover in any of Prescott’s five starts before he got hurt. Conversely, Carolina has been one of the strongest teams ATS over the past year. Since their Week 2 loss at Tampa Bay last year in which they failed to cover, the Panthers have been on a 12-5 run against the number, including a 3-0 record this season.

  • Cowboys Attracting Attention … and Bets

It appears bettors are aware of Dallas’ perfect record against-the-spread the season, and perhaps unaware of the Panthers’ recent success, because the Cowboys have attracted 62% of the bets and 71% of the money, according to Action Network. Despite that action and the fact that the Panthers will be without star RB Christian McCaffery, this line has slid half-a-point in Carolina’s favor from an opening line of Cowboys -4.5 to the current mark of Dallas -4. It’s worth noting that the Panthers played last Thursday night, while the Cowboys were featured on Monday Night Football in Week 3. So, Carolina has an extra four days of rest coming into this game.


  • DJ Moore’s Coming Out Party

It seems that no one is happier that Sam Darnold is a Carolina Panther than WR DJ Moore. Moore, a 2018 first-round pick out of Maryland, has quietly been a big producer for the Panthers in his first three seasons in the league, posting 1,100+ receiving-yard seasons in back-to-back years (and on pace for over 1,600 yards this season). However, he doesn’t seem to attract as much national attention as many other receivers, and very few consider him among the game’s elite. That perception may be starting to shift as Moore is starting to shine in 2021. Pro Football Focus has given Moore an 82.7 grade (out of 100) through three games this season, the fifth-best mark in the league. It’s not just the great catches or his ability to make defenders miss after the reception -- Moore is PFF’s fifth-highest graded run-blocking WR, as well. That may not endear him to fans, but it certainly does to Carolina’s coaching staff, as it continues to find ways to get him the ball. According to Next Gen Stats, over 40% of Sam Darnold’s air yards this season have gone to Moore, with DJ garnering throws on over 30% of Darnold’s passes, one of only five WRs attracting at least 30% of his team’s total targets. And he’s getting that attention despite being one of the most heavily-pressed WRs in the NFL; Moore is one of four wide receivers who gets an average cushion of less than 4 yards per play.

The only knock on Moore, and perhaps the reason he’s not as heavily publicized, is his lack of touchdown scoring. Despite having nearly 3,700 yards from scrimmage in his 3+ seasons, Moore has scored only 11 touchdowns (one TD for every 336 yards gained). One cause is the lack of redzone looks that he gets; Moore has 31 total targets this season, and just one of them has come from inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. That’s not much of a change from 2020, when he had 9 targets in the redzone for the season and made just two catches in that area. The breakout seems to be here for DJ, and if he can start making more trips into the endzone, he might start getting that attention as one of the league’s best wide outs.


Line: Packers -6, Total: 44.5


  • Fading Identity

The Pittsburgh Steelers franchise has long been known as a “smashmouth-style” football team: tough defense and a strong running game. The former is certainly still in play, but the latter has disappeared in recent years. And whether they are trying or not, the Steelers have not been able to establish a running game. Including last season’s playoff loss to the Browns, Mike Tomlin’s team has failed to rush for 100 yards in 10 straight games and 14 of their last 15 contests. Including the postseason, the Steelers have played 52 games since 2018; the team has totaled less than 20 rushing attempts in 20 of those games (38%) and been held below 100 yards rushing 34 times (65%). They drafted Najee Harris out of Alabama in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, but he’s been unable to get much going, averaging 3.1 yards per carry in his first three NFL games. The Steelers are dead-last in the NFL in yards per rush (3.2) and rushing yards per game (53.0).

The ability to run the football will be paramount in this game, as Pittsburgh’s receiving corps are banged up. Chase Claypool has been ruled out for this game after suffering a hamstring injury in practice and while Diontae Johnson (knee) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (ribs) are expected to play, they are both at less than 100% health. Plus, QB Ben Roethlisberger missed practice time this week with a pectoral injury.


  • Road Dog with a Big Bite

The Steelers relish the role of road underdogs and have been extremely successful in those situations over the past five years. In their last 15 games as a road underdog in the regular season, the Steelers are 12-3 against-the-spread and 9-6 overall. When the Steelers are on the road, points tend to be scarce; only five of their last 23 regular season road games have gone over the total. On the flip side, Green Bay is no slouch at home when favored: the Packers are 9-4 ATS as a home favorite in its last 13 and won 12 of those 13 games straight-up. And, despite the reputation as a high-powered offense, seven of their last 12 home games have gone under the total.

  • Packer Popularity

It appears the public has completely forgotten about Week 1 when the Packers got demolished by the New Orleans Saints and the Steelers beat one of the favorites in the AFC, the Buffalo Bills. A massive 81% of the total tickets have been placed on the Packers for this matchup, though 64% of the money is on that side, according to Action Network. Action is reporting sharp action (pro bettors) on the Steelers, as well. As far as the total, bettors seem aware of the Steelers’ tendency to have low-scoring road games: 55% of the tickets are on the under and 78% of the money is on that side (including sharp action), according to Action Network.


  • Everything Starts Up Front

We noted above that the Steelers have struggled on the ground, and it starts with the offensive line. The team had to completely revamp its offensive front in the offseason, after losing Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey to retirement and starting OT Alejandro Villanueva and OG Matt Feiler to free agency. Plus, starting OG David DeCastro was cut by the team in the summer after revealing he was dealing with an injury that was likely to keep him out of action in 2021 and may even end his career. The only Week 1 starter from 2020 who was set to return was OT Zach Banner, who missed nearly all of 2020 due to injury and hasn’t yet been able to return this season, though he did return to practice this week. To make matters worse, one of this year’s starting OT, Chukwuma Okorafor (who filled in in Banner’s absence last year), will not play in this game after sustaining a concussion.

So, how has the new offensive line performed this season? Not very well, according to Pro Football Focus. We’ll start at tackle, the bookends of the offensive line who take on even more importance on an offense like Pittsburgh that’s built on the passing game. Rookie Dan Moore Jr., a fourth-round selection out of Texas A&M who has stepped in at left tackles and started all three games, is graded as the 48th-best OT in the NFL. Chukwuma Okorafor, who won’t play Sunday, is rated as #52. No other Steelers OT is qualified at the position, but 6th year veteran Joe Haeg will likely fill-in for Okorafor. At guard, the Steelers have Trai Turner graded out at 65.7 by PFF, good for 27th in the league among his position, and the highest-rated Steeler offensive lineman. Their other guard, Kevin Dotson, is at 57.3 (45th in the NFL) and their center Kendrick Green is at 55.0 (23rd). For reference, PFF states that a player must achieve a grade above 70 to be considered a “Starter.” So, the Steelers have no offensive linemen who even grade out as a starter at their position. And three of their starters have a grade below 60, which puts them in the PFF “Replaceable” category (60-69 is “Backup” category), which is the lowest possible category.