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Week 6 Preview: Panthers visit the Falcons in Atlanta

The Carolina Panthers (1-4, 0-2) will be traveling to Atlanta to take on their NFC South rival, the Falcons (2-3, 1-1) in a Week 6 showdown. Before the year, I had this game marked down as a loss for the Panthers. However, the Falcons have been surprisingly disappointing causing many to ask themselves “What was I thinking?” for selecting Atlanta to advance to the Super Bowl. The bottom line is that this game is a very winnable one for the Panthers and they match up well against the Falcons in many aspects of the game. To see what the Panthers must do to come out of Atlanta with a victory, continue to read on.

Though the Panthers’ record stands at 1-4 in the 2011 season, the team has been very competitive as evident by the fact that all five games the Panthers have played in have been decided by seven points or less. The Panthers will be going up against a Falcons team that is struggling and has an actual human-like Matt Ryan behind center.

One positive note, the Panthers should be close to full strength as they take on the Falcons Sunday.

Panthers Keys of the Game:

One interesting storyline in tomorrow’s matchup is the fact that Cam Newton will be playing his first professional game in his home state. For that reason alone, you can suspect that the Panthers will have a larger cheering section in the Georgia Dome than they have in years past. Newton comes into the game with 113 completions in 194 attempts (58%) for 1610 yards and 7 touchdowns. He has an addition 160 yards on the ground and 5 touchdowns on 40 attempts.

Carolina’s number five ranked passing game has a chance to really catch fire tomorrow as the Falcons will be entering the game with the NFL’s 28th ranked pass defense which is giving up 294 yards a game. Steve Smith has gotten off to an excellent start already surpassing last year’s receiving yards mark by having hauled in 609 yards and three touchdowns. On a side note, according to an Sports Illustrated player poll, Smith is the 12th meanest player in the NFL.  Greg Olsen is second on the team in the receiving category with 20 receptions for 240 yards and 3 touchdowns. I would not be surprised to see the Panthers take some shots downfield in hopes of converting chances into big plays. With the offense attack moving well through the air, it seems like rumors of Brandon Lloyd coming to Carolina have been overblown.

Double Trouble started the season at a crawl. However, in the past two games, the Panthers running game has averaged 165 yards on the ground. Still, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have only accounted for 390 yards rushing and a single touchdown on 83 attempts. It’s been an odd change for Panther Nation to see such a lackluster effort in the ground game following the Fox regime’s motto of ground and pound. Carolina’s talented running duo will have no easy task tomorrow as the Falcons own the NFL’s 8th best rushing defense which is only allowing 89 yards a game.

On defense the Panthers must shut down the run. It may seem hopeless when you consider that Carolina has the 27th ranked rushing defense that is giving up 135 yards a game. However, the Falcons come in at a disappointing 23rd in rushing offense only averaging 98 yards a game. Carolina cannot count on statistics though as Atlanta has talented backs in Michael Turner and versatile rookie Jacquizz Rodgers.

Carolina’s 15th ranked passing defense will have a tad easier job tomorrow as Atlanta’s all-world rookie receiver, Julio Jones will be out with a hamstring injury. Jones’ absence will allow Carolina to double up on Roddy White and play a loose zone that can allow the Panthers’ front seven to put pressure on Matt Ryan. The defense must take advantage of turnover opportunities when they present themselves and cause enough pressure to make Ryan make quick decisions.

Atlanta Falcons Keys to the Game:

The Falcons rough start is one of the more curious developments of the young 2011 season. Matt Ryan comes into the game with a 79.9 passer rating and has already thrown 6 interceptions, which is only three less that what he had in the entire 2010 season. Ryan comes into the game having completed 120 passes in 196 attempts (61.2%) with 7 touchdowns. Though Roddy White currently sits second in NFL with 32 receptions, he only has 2 touchdowns. The fact that Jones will be out with a hamstring injury will only complicate the Falcons passing game’s impact which is ranked at an avergae 14th.

Michael Turner could have a breakout game for the Falcons as the Panthers have one of the league’s worst rushing defenses. I would expect the Falcons to rely heavily on both Turner and Rodgers so they can use the run to set up play action passes.

Atlanta’s passing defense is about as bad as Carolina’s rush defense. The Falcons are giving up 294 yards through the air per game. The must find a way to contain Steve Smith and not allow him to have another big game. They must also limit the amount of times Newton completes passes to his second favorite target, Greg Olsen.

The Falcon run defense in stout, but Double Trouble is poised for a breakout game. The run defense must stay true to their assignments and not try to make big plays or Williams and Stewart could make them pay with long runs. If they can effectively stop the run, they can do what almost every other defense has done to the Panthers’ offense by making it one-dimensional.

Game Prediction: Carolina comes out of Atlanta with a 24-18 victory.

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