Oct 24, 2013; Tampa, FL, USA; Carolina Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert (35) jumps into the end zone to score a touchdown during the second half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Carolina Panthers defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-13. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Game Preview: Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers

The second division game for the Carolina Panthers this season has the Atlanta Falcons as guests at Bank of America Stadium, and the timing is perfect – for the Panthers.

The Falcons come in with much of their offense tied behind their backs (and to the training room). WR Roddy White hasn’t been 100% all season and deep threat Julio Jones is on Injured Reserve, but Harry Douglass and others have taken up a fair amount of the slack. RB Steven Jackson is a week healthier and should see more touches than the handful he had last week as he works his way back into game shape.

Future first-ballot Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, the Ageless Wonder, still has “it” at age 37 and RB Jacquizz Rodgers is a capable receiver out of the backfield, so “Matty Ice” still has some firepower at his disposal.

What he will NOT see this year are mismatches on the back end to pull victories out of his (*AHEM*) in the waning moments.

Nope, no Haruki Nakamura of the Three Inch Vertical Leap trying to out-jump Julio or Roddy for a deep ball. This year, it’s Mike Mitchell – my own pre-season pick for “pleasant surprise” of the season, and thus far is totally living up to that billing.

Defensively, the Falcons have not been able to solve Cam Newton at all. If you’ll recall, the Panthers beat them in their second match-up last season and were a Newton fumble late in the 4th quarter from winning the first one.

Atlanta really addressed their pass defense in the draft, using their top two picks on corners since they lost veteran (and cagey) CB Brent Grimes in free agency to the Miami Dolphins. Grimes had a 92-yard pick-6 last week for the ‘fins.

Oct 24, 2013; Tampa, FL, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) throws from out of the pocket against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Carolina Panthers defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-13. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 24, 2013; Tampa, FL, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) throws from out of the pocket against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Carolina Panthers defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-13. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Stats courtesy of NFL.com

Statistical comparison:

Offense:

Carolina Panthers yards/game: (22nd) 327.0
Atlanta Falcons yards/game: (11th) – 362.9

Carolina Panthers passing offense: (29th) – 197.0
Atlanta Falcons passing offense: (4th) – 300.0

Carolina Panthers rushing offense: (8th) – 130.0
Atlanta Falcons rushing offense: (32nd) – 62.4

Carolina Panthers scoring offense: (11th) – 26.7 pts/game
Atlanta Falcons scoring offense: (15th) – 23.7 pts/game

Oct 27, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) makes a pass against the Arizona Cardinals in the first half at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Defense:

Carolina Panthers yards/game: (3rd) – 301.1
Atlanta Falcons yards/game: (21st) – 363.7

Carolina Panthers passing defense: (10th) – 222.1
Atlanta Falcons passing defense: (21st) – 229.6

Carolina Panthers rushing defense: (2nd) – 79.3
Atlanta Falcons rushing defense: (21st) – 114.1

Carolina Panthers scoring defense: (2nd) – 13.7
Atlanta Falcons scoring defense: (22nd) – 26.3

Carolina Panthers sacks: 22 in 7 games (3.14 sacks/game) – it’s “pi” for you math geeks out there – interesting…
Atlanta Falcons sacks: 17 in 7 games (2.43 sacks/game)

Osi Umenyiora was acquired by the Falcons after letting aging veteran John Abraham go. Osi only has 4 sacks on the season.

Looking at the statistics, the Falcons clearly rely heavily on the passing game for the lion’s share of their offense. The Panthers rely on the run.

The Panthers defense against the pass is the weaker area in an otherwise very, very stout defense but still cracks the top-ten. The Falcons defense is consistent at least, being in the bottom-third in every category. They’re at the top of that bottom third, but their defense looks weak on paper.

So what should we expect? Since the Panthers are playing at home, I see the Panthers being able to enforce their will against the Falcons’ reeling defense – especially considering the fact that the Panthers are on the rise the past few games and Cam Newton’s QB rating, I think, leads the entire NFL over that last 3-game span.

Since the Falcons have yet to show any ability whatsoever to defend a quarterback with the skill set Cam has, and with Cam’s rapid improvement over the last month, I see a HUGE game for the Carolina quarterback and the team should be able to win the time of possession battle.

Oct 27, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Harry Douglas (83) runs with the ball during the first half against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The other side to that is that the Falcons are the worst running team in the NFL. With the run defense being the Panthers’ strength, I don’t see the Falcons being able to sustain much on the ground.

The Carolina front-seven is as good as they come in the NFL and I’d put theirs up against anyone’s including the Seahawks and the Chiefs fronts.

As a result, look for Falcons’ QB Matt Ryan putting up a minimum of 40 passes while rushing the ball somewhere around 15 carries – spread out between Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers mostly.

For the Panthers, I see them running the ball at least two-to-one in the play calling. Cam’s upsurge seems to coincide with decreased passing attempts. Cam has the second-fewest pass attempts of any QB over the past month, and I see that trend continuing as well.

The gameplans, as you might surmise, should be polar opposites. The Panthers will grind things out with the running game, including 5-9 runs by Cam with the rest spread between DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert. Also look for the reutrn of Jonathan Stewart from his ankle injury, but he probably won’t get more than 5-7 touches as he works his way back into game shape and gives the Panthers their full complement of game-day backs and Stewart is known for his soft hands, so he may see a few targets out of the backfield.

Prediction:

Carolina wins the time of possession battle rather easily; say about 36 minutes to 24 for Atlanta. The reduced number of snaps on offense combined with the Falcons’ anemic running game going up against probably the best rushing defense in the NFL means Matt Ryan is going to have to be near-perfect with his passes for them to have any hope at all of winning this contest.

Since the Panthers know this, look for Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy, and other reserves to pin their ears back and rush Ryan nearly every down.

With the Panthers’ running game being their strength and the rushing defense the Falcons’ biggest weakness, I think the Panthers are going to be able to get longer and longer runs in the second half as the Falcons defense tires. Some play-action passes from Newton along with a few zone-read plays and lots of handing the ball off means the Panthers will likely dictate the pace of the game.

Add in the fact the defense has been rather ball-hawkish lately, and I see a solid victory for the Panthers – once again, on the back of their defensive play and taking care of the ball, not turning it over but perhaps once on a fumble of some sort.

Carolina Panthers 34, Atlanta Falcons 19

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