This game marks the return of Charles Johnson from the injured reserve for the Carolina Panthers. The dominant pass rusher has missed the past two months with a hamstring injury but is now healthy and ready to contribute down the stretch.
The Panthers' pass rush has done a good job in his absence though as they are tied for third in the NFL in sacks with 31. One of the reasons is the emergence of Kony Ealy, who now has four straight games with a sack. The team is going to have three legitimate pass rushers and now have a number of different combinations to put pressure on Tony Romo.
On Wednesday, Ron Rivera announced that Ealy would be coming off the bench with Johnson and Jared Allen starting for the team at defensive end. He also said he will want to try and keep Johnson's snap count around 30 so Ealy should have plenty of chances to extend his streak. It also wouldn't be surprising to see all three on the field on passing downs with Ealy lined up inside at defensive tackle.
Pass rushers is a big storyline for this game as the Cowboys have a pass rusher, who is a former Panther, and who will want to have an impact. It is going to fall primarily on left tackle Michael Oher's shoulders to stop Greg Hardy.
Oher has had a bit of a career rejuvenation in Carolina and has played well for the team at left tackle. After being bounced around between the left and right tackle position in Baltimore then primarily playing right tackle in Tennessee last year, Oher is back in his natural position on the left side.
It certainly hasn't all been pretty as Oher has struggled to run block with Pro Football Focus grading him as the worst run blocking left tackle at -25.8. However, he has exceled protecting Cam Newton and is graded as the ninth best pass blocking left tackle with a rating of 7.6. After he gave up two sacks in Week 1 against the Jaguars, he has given up only one sack over the past nine games.
Oher is going to have the tall task of trying to stop a motivated Greg Hardy, who is going to try his best to prove to Carolina they made a mistake in not trying to bring him back. Newton's success could hinge on how well Oher blocks Hardy today.
The Cowboys offense is one of the best in the league when the team has Tony Romo under center. In the three games Romo has played this year, the Cowboys have averaged 23.6 points per game compared to only 17 points in the seven games he has missed.
If the team wants to slow Romo down, it will need to take away his best weapon, which is Dez Bryant. This is where cornerback Josh Norman comes into play as he will need to have a shutdown performance against Bryant. The Panthers' cornerback knows just how big this matchup is and told Charlotte Observer's Joe Person that he has had this marked on his calendar since the start of the year.
If Norman is on Bryant, he can expect to have a busy day as Bryant has been targeted at least seven times every game this year. Norman has only been thrown at more than seven times once in the past six games. This is going to be a marquee matchup of two players at the top of their respective positions and should be really fun to watch.