The Atlanta Falcons are fresh off a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 10, and their record now stands at 3-0 in the NFC South. They face another division rival in the Carolina Panthers this Sunday, and have the opportunity to put themselves in the driver’s seat within the divisional race with a win.
Despite a 3-6 overall record, a win this weekend could put the Falcons atop the NFC South, assuming the Cincinnati Bengals can also take care of the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
But in Charlotte this weekend, the Falcons will face a tougher opponent than they faced last week against a one-win Buccaneers team. While the Panthers have struggled this year, they still present a tougher matchup for the Falcons.
Over the years, the Panthers have routinely dominated the Falcons in the trenches thanks to the play of a formidable defensive front. However, those things could change this weekend.
Panthers Injuries Give Falcons Offensive Line an Advantage
The Panthers are expected to be without defensive end Greg Hardy and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei this weekend. Hardy has been sidelined since Week 1 due to issues stemming from a domestic violence conviction. Lotulelei is sporting an ankle sprain that could keep him out for an extended period.
Hardy dominated the Falcons offensive line in the 2013 season finale. Given the ankle problems that have plagued Falcons rookie left tackle Jake Matthews over the past six weeks, not having to face a pass-rusher as formidable as Hardy will be a great relief. Hardy’s backup, Wes Horton has struggled this season. Premium website Pro Football Focus grades Horton as 51st among 56 4-3 defensive ends as far as pass-rushing goes.
Replacing Lotulelei will be nose tackle Colin Cole. Cole’s primary function the past two seasons with the Panthers has been logging snaps against the run, to allow the Panthers to utilize defensive tackle Kawann Short as a situational pass-rusher. Cole has been effective in that role, and it will be a tall order to fill the role of Lotulelei, who has been one of the league’s most effective every-down players due to his strength and power. Like Matthews, Falcons rookie center James Stone will be getting a bit of a reprieve this week.
Short has also been nursing an ankle injury as of late which has seen a further reduction in his snaps. The Falcons interior offensive line did an excellent job handling Buccaneers’ monster defensive tackle Gerald McCoy last week, and a debilitated Short should be a much easier task.
Another Panther that will be tasked with taking on a bigger role will be defensive end Charles Johnson. Johnson has had his share of success against the Falcons, tallying a combined eight sacks in his last six appearances against Atlanta. But Johnson hasn’t been playing at a particularly high level this year. While Johnson’s four sacks on the year eclipse anything that a Falcons pass-rusher has totaled this season, it is a far cry from where he was at a year ago. Through 10 games last season, Johnson had already collected 8.5 sacks on his way to finish with 11 sacks for the season. According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson’s pressures are also down. He totaled 32 hurries through 10 games a year ago, while he’s at 26 this season.
Johnson will be facing second-year right tackle Ryan Schraeder. Schraeder has performed admirably the past two weeks since taking over for Gabe Carimi, but Johnson is a significantly different animal than what he’s faced as of late. Players like Tampa Bay’s William Gholston and Detroit’s Jason Jones just aren’t on the same level as even a diminished Johnson. Gholston and Jones have combined for 26 hurries this season per Pro Football Focus, matching Johnson’s season total.
Schraeder will be looking for revenge this week. In the season finale a year ago, he was beat for a trio of sacks, including two by Johnson. As noted earlier, Schraeder hasn’t been tested quite yet by a pass-rusher of Johnson’s skill thus far this season. It will be a strong indicator of how much growth Schraeder has undergone over the past year and could go a long way to determining just how bright his future is with the Falcons.
The Falcons will likely try and slide their protections to give Schraeder a bit more help, as well as utilize tight ends and backs to try and chip Johnson. That could further test the health of Matthews’ ankle. Although he gets a favorable matchup against Horton, it still can be difficult to be put on an island against any NFL pass-rusher, especially when not 100 percent.
The Falcons will hope that the loss of Lotulelei will however allow quarterback Matt Ryan to have a relatively pristine pocket to step up into. If so, then he should be able to have the time to locate targets on the outside. The Panthers secondary has been a noted weakness. In 2013, the Panthers were able to overcome this due to the amount of pressure that players like Hardy, Short, Johnson and Lotulelei were able to generate up front. But without such a fierce pass rush in 2014, their secondary has been exposed.
Falcons Must Attack a Weak Panthers Secondary
Teams like the Saints and Philadelphia Eagles have had a lot of success in recent weeks attacking that Panthers deficiency on the back-end. And while the Falcons pass attack has not been quite as formidable as those two teams in recent weeks, if the team can give Ryan adequate to good protection, it should give them the opportunity to similarly exploit those weaknesses.
The Panthers benched starting cornerback Melvin White earlier this season, only to be followed up by his return to the lineup after the recent benching of fellow starter Antoine Cason. That leaves Josh Norman as the Panthers’ top performing cornerback, after entering the season as the fourth option on their depth chart.
Norman matched up well against Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones in their early 2012 matchup, making him largely a non-factor in that particular game. It remains to be seen if Norman can have a repeat performance this week. Norman plays left cornerback, which is opposite the side of the field that Jones usually lines up on. That means Norman will likely square off against Roddy White for most of the afternoon, while Jones should face Melvin White. The latter is potentially a very favorable matchup for the Falcons offense.
Hurting the Falcons however is the fact that fellow wide outs Harry Douglas and Devin Hester are nursing foot and ankle injuries, respectively. Both are questionable for this weekend’s contest after being limited in this week’s practices. That might mean that the Falcons will rely less on the four wide receiver sets that have led to most of their passing success this season.
But again, if the Falcons offensive line can give Ryan time in a relatively clean pocket, he should be able to find other options. Regardless of the quality of a secondary, defensive backs can’t be expected to cover forever. And given that the Panthers have a weak secondary, it should lead to Falcons offensive success regardless of whether Douglas and Hester have significant impacts assuming the offensive line does its job.
Falcons Defense Must Generate Pressure on Newton
Another key for the Falcons will be providing their own fair share of pressure. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has given the Falcons a lot of problems in the past both through the air and on the ground. Newton has sported a 92.9 passer rating in his last four combined games against the Falcons, while completing 61.8 percent of his throws for seven touchdowns. Against non-Falcon opponents in that span, Newton has completed roughly 59 percent of his throws and had a passer rating of 87.5, indicating he’s found greater success passing against the Falcons defense than normally.
But Newton has also gotten it done on the ground, rushing for 293 yards and three touchdowns in the past four matchups against the Falcons. Again, it should be noted that in 28 other games over the course of 2012 and 2013, Newton averaged 36.9 rushing yards per game. Against the Falcons that has been more than doubled to 73.3.
However, the Falcons might be catching Newton and the Panthers at exactly the right time. There have been numerous rumors that Newton is sporting injuries not only to the left ankle that limited him this offseason, but also to his right foot due to him overcompensating from that ankle injury. Newton confirmed this week that he is indeed hurt, although neither him nor the Panthers appear willing to use that as an excuse for any recent decline in play. It appears to be the semantic difference between being “hurt” versus being “injured.”
Furthering diminishing Newton’s effectiveness has been the poor play of their offensive line in 2014. Newton was sacked nine times by the Eagles last week, and has been dropped a total of 19 times in his last four games. Given that Newton has dropped back to throw 140 times in that span, that means he’s been sacked on 13.5 percent of his dropbacks. For the sake of comparison, that approaches the 14.5 percent sack rate that the Houston Texans allowed in their inaugural season in 2002.
Essentially over the past month, the Panthers offensive line has performed at a level comparable with some of the worst offensive lines in NFL history. If that continues on Sunday, that is something that the Falcons can definitely exploit.
Newton’s accuracy has a tendency to dip when he’s pressured, as his mechanics and footwork can get sloppy. He has a tendency to throw off his back foot in those instances, leading to passes to be inaccurate and sail on him. That can lead to a higher number of interceptions, as Newton has thrown six interceptions in the past four games, while throwing just two picks in his first five games in 2014.
The Falcons tend to benefit from winning the turnover battle. In their three wins this year, they have had a combined turnover margin of plus-five, while in their six losses this year, it is minus-three. If the Falcons can generate pressure, which then leads to Newton turning the ball over, it should lead to a win.
The injuries to Newton haven’t exactly stopped him from utilizing his legs, although some of that could be attributed to trying to escape a collapsing pocket. But if the Falcons can get the Panthers down early in the game, it will make it less likely that Newton’s running ability will make a difference in the game. It would put the Panthers behind the eight ball, so that they would be compelled to start to throw the ball more.
The magic number might be 35 for the Falcons. In games where Newton attempts 35 or more passes, the Panthers sport a 4-15-1 record over his career. In games where Newton throws the ball 34 times or less, the Panthers are 23-14. That number 35 is not an arbitrary number either, as the average NFL offense has attempted 34.8 passes per game over the course of Newton’s career. The Panthers simply aren’t a team that is built to be a pass-first offense, and given Newton’s health problems, the lack of weapons at wide receiver and a porous offensive line, that issue has only been compounded in 2014.
The Falcons of course have been the polar opposite over Ryan’s career. And essentially, the winner of this game will boil down to which team can play their brand of football. If the Falcons can make this into a pass-heavy shootout, it bodes well for them. Instead, the Panthers will try to reduce it to a run-heavy, grind-it-out type of game which plays to their strengths and away from their weaknesses.
Whichever team sets either tone early will likely be the team that winds up winning in the end and potentially put themselves atop the NFC South.