First off, let me say that I do not believe the Falcons will lose to the Panthers. I’ll get into some of those reasons later, but I think our offense will just be too much for their defense. Carolina’s secondary is weak, a glaring weakness on their entire team. If anything surpasses it, that would be their run defense. It was atrocious last year, and this year it has graduated to horrible.
Now granted the Falcons run defense hasn’t been that much better this year, but at least the Falcons’ excuse is that they’ve played a ton of nickel, which has led to some cracks being exploited.
The Falcons shouldn’t have any issues moving the ball against the Panthers defense and ultimately scoring a lot of points. Frankly, if the Falcons cannot put up at least 27 or 28 points in this game, it will be very disappointing.
But after watching this Falcon team over the first three weeks, and see them slap around a number of teams, a target is forming on their backs. They will be a team to beat, and everybody is gunning for No. 1. So you will start to see teams implement strategies and rules to beat the Falcons. I think these strategies will fall under two main blueprints:
- Teams that can match the Falcons pass for pass, as well as be able to get pressure on our QB with just four guys will be a very tough matchup for the Falcons. The team that comes to mind is a team like the New York Giants. If Eli Manning has to drop back 45 times in order for the Giants to win, they are comfortable playing that way. And their pass rush is formidable enough that they can pressure with 4 and thus drop 7 to try and deal with all of our weapons.
- Teams that can control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball as well as time of possession with a steady, strong running game will also give the Falcons fits. Two good examples that the Falcons won’t have to play this year are Seattle and San Francisco.
The Panthers will have to try and adopt the latter strategy if they want to beat the Falcons. Cam Newton is not far enough in his development as a passer for them to think that he can drop back a bunch of times and he can throw them to victory. Because if that happens, he’ll throw them into defeat. They also don’t have a defense that is good enough against the pass to get stops and pressure Ryan. Charles Johnson is a good player and has had strong outings against the Falcons in the past, but he looks as if he’s lost a bit of a step and won’t be that impact defender anymore. Besides him, there is very little to like about the Panthers front.
So thus they will rely on a steady diet of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart (if healthy enough to play), and Cam Newton on the ground to try and keep Matt Ryan and the offense off the field. This is the same strategy that the Falcons have adopted themselves when facing teams like Green Bay and New Orleans in the past. Which should indicate to anyone that the Falcons offense is now feared on a similar level with those units from past years.
But Carolina has never been a team that has shown me an ability to sustain an offense like the Michael Turner-led Falcons of yesteryear could. A big reason why the Falcons could pull off those long drives was because of the heady play of Matt Ryan, who as far as game management skills goes, is second to no one. Newton is not that type of QB and probably never will be. His decision making and accuracy won’t allow that. So for Carolina, they are instead going to need a couple of big plays. Steve Smith is always good for some, and Dunta Robinson is going to have to be on his game to stop that. The Falcons have been able to handle Smith in past games, but there’s always a big game possible with Smith, such as his 125-yard performance in Week 14 last year.
By running the football, the Panthers may force the Falcons into their base defense featuring three linebackers on the field. It’s possible that they could use that to their advantage with the pass, trying to test the untested Akeem Dent in some one on one situations against a player like Greg Olsen. That might also generate some big plays.
The other thing that Panthers need is luck. Frankly, they need the Falcons to shoot themselves in the foot much like the San Diego Chargers did last week. The Chargers had two redzone turnovers. One redzone turnover is enough to lose a game, two is unforgivable. Last week at the point where the Chargers fumbled the first time, they had a chance to take a 7-6 lead at the start of the second quarter. But they fumbled the ball at the 7-yard line, and 10 minutes later they were down 20-0. That single turnover effectively initiated a 21-point swing in that game.
That’s what the Panthers need more than anything, for the Falcons to make some costly mistakes. Because Matt Ryan is so good at protecting the football, and their pass rush isn’t of the caliber that will pressure him into more mistakes, it’s likely they’ll have to rely on fumbles as those mistakes. A bad snap, a muffed punt, or just a helmet hitting the ball at the right angle can create those sorts of mistakes that could swing a game in their favor.
If the Panthers adopt that gameplan and execute it perfectly, they have a chance to be the first team to beat the Falcons in 2012.