Beware of the Panthers

Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers is all about Tony Romo, right? How will he handle his first start? Will he be looking over his shoulder for Drew Bledsoe? Will he spread the ball around enough to keep all of his receivers (OK, at least Terrell Owens) happy?

Not true.

In a week when the football world seems focused on the adjoining lockers at Valley Ranch bearing the No. 11 (Bledsoe) and No. 9 (Romo) name plates, the Cowboys seem more concerned with the team they'll see Sunday night.

Carolina comes into Sunday's game sporting a 4-3 record, which marks a stark contrast from the team's 0-2 start. Not coincidentally, the team's 4-1 streak happens to cover the five games after star wide receiver Steve Smith returned from a hamstring strain.

"He's a very confident guy," Dallas cornerback Anthony Henry said. "He's fast and he's physical, and he's proof that size doesn't matter. He's not very tall, but he just goes up and makes plays."

In his five games this season, Smith has a team-leading 39 receptions and 576 receiving yards, and his pair of receiving touchdowns tie him with former Cowboy Keyshawn Johnson and third-year wideout Drew Carter for the team lead.

If Smith was the Panthers' only dangerous player, the Cowboys could prepare a defensive scheme designed to take him out of the game. That, however, is not the case.

Johnson has filled a similar role in Carolina as he did in Dallas, using his size and speed to complement a smaller, faster "lead" receiver (Carolina's Smith this season, Dallas wideout Terry Glenn last year). The only difference is that Johnson isn't leading the wide receiver group in interviews. Glenn eschews interview requests like the plague, while Smith talks as much as any receiver in the NFL whose name is not Terrell Owens or Chad Johnson. Almost quietly (if that's possible for the loquacious veteran), Johnson is the team's second-leading aerial target, with 36 receptions this season for 460 yards.

Henry said that despite their different physiques, Johnson and Smith share many of the same qualities.

"Keyshawn is another guy who's very confident and physical," Henry said. "He's got a lot of play-making ability, and he's very tough in traffic."

The Panthers feature a pair of solid running backs, led by fifth-year veteran DeShaun Foster, who leads the team with 128 carries for 490 yards and a touchdown on the ground. The team's dangerous runner, however, might be DeAngelo Williams, the electrifying rookie from Memphis. Williams has just 26 carries as Foster's understudy, but he has racked up 139 yards, for a 5.3-yard average on each carry. Williams is listed as questionable for Sunday's game because of an ankle sprain.

The offense is led by veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme, who has completed 143-of-239 passes (59.8 percent) for 1,581 yards. He also has thrown eight touchdowns, and has been picked off four times. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Delhomme has a scrambling, gunslinger style that bears a resemblence to that of the Cowboys' new starting QB. That, however, doesn't mean that facing Romo in practice all season has allowed the Dallas defense any advantage as the Cowboys gear up to face Delhomme.

Linebacker Bradie James said that while Delhomme and Romo have some similar characteristics, practicing against Romo doesn't help when it comes to facing Delhomme.

"They're really two totally different players," James said. "Jake makes some plays with his feet, but he's a veteran quarterback. He's smart, he's tough, and he knows how to spread the ball around."

The Panthers' defense is potent, starting with its formidable front four. The headliner of the group is super-athletic defensive end Julius Peppers, who is second on the team with 46 tackles and is by far the team's best pass rusher with a team-high eight sacks.

"He's a very good player, very athletic," Dallas head coach Bill Parcells said. "Now he's got a lot of very good experience, too. I think any coach in the league, if asked to name the top defensive ends, wouldn't get very far without putting his name in there. He's one of the top two or three in the league, if not the best."

Despite all of the Panthers' weapons, the focus of the week -- right or wrong -- will center on Romo's first start. When facing the media for the first time as the team's starter, Romo tried to emphasize that the focus remains on the ultimate goal.

"I don't care if I throw for 100 yards or 400 yards, throw three interceptions or no interceptions, or throw five touchdowns or no touchdowns," Romo said. "We're trying to go out and win this game."

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