CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WSPA) – The Panthers get their first rematch of the season when they battle the Atlanta Falcons in primetime Thursday night.
Carolina gets another crack at the Falcons after defeating the NFC South rival on October 11, 23-16.
A lot has changed since then. At the time, Carolina snagged its third straight win, moving to 3-2 on the season. But since, they’ve dropped two in a row and find themselves below .500 once again.
The good news for Carolina is that their offense gets some relief this week after having to face the stingy Bears and solid Saints front. Mike Davis was relatively ineffective in both of those games, although the entire Panthers offense struggled to gain any momentum. Now is his opportunity to get back to form as he was one of the more prolific backs in the league during the team’s winning streak. This is if Christian McCaffrey doesn’t return to action, which is considered to be a longshot this week although he was listed as ‘designated to return.’ That is a typical formality, however, so it’s unclear what the Panthers plan to do with their star RB. And the team listed left tackle Russell Okung as doubtful to play as he nurses a calf injury. That will be a big blow to the unit up front. Back to Davis. He has continued to be used out of the backfield that will likely be the case on Thursday night as well. The last time he played the Falcons, Davis rattled off 89 yards rushing plus nine catches for 60 yards and a touchdown through the air. It was his best outing of the season, and not much has changed in Atlanta to suggest it won’t be another big night for the veteran.
The same can be said for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. He’s in line for another productive showing against a porous Falcons defense. Bridgewater tore through Atlanta’s secondary in their first meeting, completing 75% of his passes for 313 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. It was one of his better performances of the season. The following week he stumbled, completing just 55% of his passes in what was his worst game of the year. Bridgewater played well against the Saints last week and will likely build on that momentum in Charlotte this week. When the passing game is on, the Panthers have actually been one of the better teams through the air in the NFL. They are currently in the top ten in total passing yards as well as yards per attempt, completion percentage, and first down percentage. A big reason for that has been the addition of Robby Anderson, who’s opened things up downfield, but also the resurgence of D.J. Moore. After beginning the season relatively slow, Moore has been highly productive the last three weeks. In that span he’s contributed exactly 93 yards in each game, scoring three touchdowns in the process. With Curtis Samuel back in the lineup, the Panthers offense is much more than just a running threat.
Defensively, the Panthers have taken advantage of offensive mistakes, grabbing a turnover in each of the last six games. But their rushing defense, outside of the Chicago game, has been dismal. Their 4.9 yards per rush is seventh-worst in the NFL, and they’ve allowed ten rushing touchdowns this season. Their secondary has actually been pretty solid, although the run success could have something to do with that. But on average they’re giving up 6.3 yards per catch, which ranks them first in the NFL. They were particularly effective against Atlanta last time around as they held Matt Ryan to a 57% completion percentage, collecting an interception while not allowing a touchdown. They did, however, surrender 121 yards rushing and a touchdown to Todd Gurley. They’ll need to focus on slowing him down this week as he was a big part of Atlanta staying in contention in early October.
It’s no secret at this point that Atlanta has consistently found a way to lose games this season. On three occasions when they’ve had a 99% chance of winning, they’ve wound up losing late in the fourth quarter. There are two ways to look at this: the Falcons just haven’t been able to close out games, and they fall apart in the fourth quarter; but you could argue on the flip side that the Falcons could very easily have three more wins if it weren’t for a few plays. The answer is likely a considerable mix of both.
A big area of improvement in recent weeks for the Falcons has been their rush defense. They’ve allowed just 232 yards and 64 yards, respectively, in the last two weeks against the Vikings and Lions. In the secondary, they’re the complete opposite of Carolina. While the Panthers have allowed the fewest yards per attempt, Atlanta is allowing the most at 8.7 yards per attempt. They’ve allowed well over 300 yards passing in each game outside of week one (299 yards allowed). This will likely be an area of focus for the Panthers as there are plenty of areas from which to attack this secondary.
Of course on offense the Falcons have plenty of talent. Starting with one of the best receivers in the league: Julio Jones. At 6’3, 220 pounds with considerable speed, Jones is about as close to a complete wideout as there is in the NFL. Although he’s been injured for much of the season, Jones has played through some ailments and still put up gaudy numbers. He’s been a limited participant this week, but many reports suggest he’s likely to go on Thursday. In addition to Jones, Calvin Ridley has been the touchdown producer on the team. One of the more talented young receivers in the league, Ridley has six touchdowns this season and has scored in each of the last two games. He’s a quality route runner with exceptional speed to take the top off of defenses. And finally Russel Gage is a quality number three target, who’s often used in the slot.
Todd Gurley has been extremely effective for Atlanta in his first year with the team. An accidental score last week late in the game was a big blunder that paved the way for a Lions comeback, but overall he’s been a huge addition to the group. He’s found the end zone in all but two games this season, yet he’s only eclipsed the century mark once. That’s oftentimes been due to the team having to abandon the run earlier than expected.
Matt Ryan has had somewhat of an up and down year. He’s been fairly good at protecting the football as he has thrown just three interceptions all season, but his completion percentages vary wildly from 50% to 75%. And he’s been sacked an average of over two times per game. But he has the capability to take over on any given game, and has two four-touchdown performances already. If the Panthers aren’t buttoned up, Ryan can have a field day Thursday night.
Atlanta will almost certainly be coming into Bank of America Stadium with a big chip on their shoulder. They’ve been turned into a punchline with their several collapses, and will be eager to reverse the narrative on Thursday. Given the Panthers’ shortcomings against the run, Atlanta may turn to Gurley early and often, much like their last meeting.
But if the Panthers can manage to get off to a quick start and take advantage of the Atlanta defense, then Carolina will be a prime position to force the Falcons to go to the air sooner than they’d like. If that’s the case, the Panthers have a good shot at coming away victorious. If not, Matt Ryan and company could control the tempo and keep Carolina’s offense off the field. And if Atlanta is able to sustain long drives, it could spell danger for the Panthers.
All that being said, Carolina is set up well to establish a rhythm on the ground with Davis and supplement that with play action shots downfield to Anderson and Moore. With a win on a short week, the Panthers can make a statement by getting back on track and evening their record in the process.