CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WSPA) – The Panthers look for their third win in a row as they travel to Atlanta to take on the 0-4 Falcons Sunday afternoon.
Carolina seems to have found its groove. After losing the first two contests of the season, the Panthers have rattled off two consecutive victories and looked good doing it.
The run game, which was a big question mark following the injury to Christian McCaffrey, has been very solid with Mike Davis leading the way. Davis found the end zone against Arizona for the second time in as many games, and he’s proven to be a valuable asset on the ground as well as catching passes out of the backfield. Although he gained fewer than 50 yards rushing in week three against Los Angeles, Davis hauled in eight passes for 45 yards and touchdown. Against the Cardinals last week, he carried the ball 16 times for 84 yards and a score while still adding five catches. He’s been as reliable a backup as they could have asked for.
In the passing game they haven’t torn through defenses, but they’ve been more than efficient. In fact, the Panthers rank tenth in the league with 7.4 net yards gained per attempt. And they’re tied for eighth in the league with 58 first downs through the air. Teddy Bridgewater has been finding his receivers when it matters most. He’s even shown off some unexpected mobility rushing for 70 yards a score through four games. And he’s fourth best in the league in completion percentage at 73%. Bridgewater has developed quite the rapport with Robby Anderson as the free agent pickup leads the team in targets, receptions, and yards.
Head Matt Rhule said he’s pleased with the progress of tight end Ian Thomas as well. Though he has barely been targeted, Thomas has shown growth with his run blocking and has emerged as a red zone threat following his first touchdown last week.
The defense has improved quite a bit as well. After a stellar outing against the Chargers in week three, in which the defense forced four turnovers, they followed that up with a solid performance against one of the league’s most dynamic offenses in Arizona. And they’ve now recorded a takeaway in each of the last three games. Teams have, however, been able to find success on the ground and through the air, though the Panther’s ‘bend don’t break’ style has aided offenses in racking up the yardage. They tend to keep everything in front of them, minimizing big play threats as opposing teams’ average depth of target is just 6.8, one of the lowest in the NFL.
And although they rarely ever blitz, posting one the lowest blitz rate in the league they are still pressuring quarterbacks on an impressive 10.5% of dropbacks. The defensive line play is a big reason for that success. Rookies Derrick Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos are coming into their own and Kawann Short has been a big impact when healthy while Brian Burns continues to be an effective rusher off the edge. With just three sacks, however, the Panthers will need to turn that high percentage of hurries into quarterback takedowns moving forward.
Eli Apple has been ruled out once again this weekend, but the remainder of the team and the defensive backfield should be ready to go on Sunday. Their impressive numbers against opposing quarterbacks has been slightly skewed considering most teams haven’t needed to pass much given their success on the ground. But as previously mentioned, they haven’t been allowing many of the splash plays that can turn a game around in one instant. As some of their young DB’s gain experience, the defense as a whole can expect continued improvement.
The Falcons have been a mess this year. They’ve already blown two games in the fourth quarter after leading by fifteen points, and they’ve looked out of sync for most of the season.
The run game was expected to receive a boost when they signed former Rams running back Todd Gurley. But Gurley has had a slow start to the year and is rushing for fewer than four yards per carry. He’s barely used in the passing game with just four catches on the season. He has a nose for the end zone, though, and has the most red zone carries in the NFL with 19. He’s converted four of those into touchdowns. Running back Brian Hill is used sparingly to spell time, but it is effective when on the field, and he’s used far more often as a receiver out of the backfield than Gurley.
Most are familiar with quarterback Matt Ryan and his effectiveness, but he’s seen a bit of a skid the past two seasons. Still, he’s one of the more efficient passers in the game, and has the ability to beat defenses with consistency. Ryan has a wealth of receivers at his disposal including newly acquired tight end Hayden Hurst. Hurst has a 13-162-2 line so far, and has a unique blend of size and speed at the position. He’s tough to cover, especially down the seam, and has very good hands. Julio Jones has been hampered by a hamstring injury, and his status for Sunday is unclear. But if he’s out there, he remains one of the biggest threats in the league. That was on full display when a healthy Jones lit up the Seattle secondary with nine catches for 157 yards. Opposite him is Calvin Ridley, who’s shown he’s capable of being a top target in this league. Ridley is an exceptional route runner, and with Julio being in and out of the lineup, he’s been the clear leader in the receiver corps. Ridley has 21 catches for 349 yards and four touchdowns this season and is red hot coming into this contest with Carolina.
Defensively, they’ve been torched through the air. Atlanta has surrendered 7.8 net yards gained per passing attempt and they’re allowing nearly 450 yards per game to opposing offenses. They’re much more effective against the run, as their defensive line is the strength of the defense. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett is their best, and most effective pass rusher on the interior. He leads the team with 2.5 sacks this season and is routinely seen blowing up the backfield.
Deion Jones highlights the linebacker corps, and is on the field for nearly 99% of all defensive snaps. Their secondary likely gets a boost this week with former Clemson star A.J. Terrell returning from the COVID-19 list. They desperately need help on the back end, too. The Falcons have allowed 13 passing touchdowns this season. Although Terrell did give up eight completions on nine targets in his first two games, his return will still provide them with some playmaking ability in the secondary. Keanu Neal is one of those hybrid safety’s that is used in a multitude of ways. He can often be seen making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage and is a sure tackle. He, along with several others, was a limited participant in practice this week and his status will be monitored ahead of the game.
In a year where many had cast them out, the Panthers are a mere one game behind the Buccaneers for the division lead. And with a winless Falcons squad on the horizon, they could very well get above .500 for the first time this season and establish themselves as a legitimate threat in the NFC South.
The Panthers should be able to find success on the ground and in the air against the porous Falcons defense, and they’ll likely attempt to sustain longer drives to keep Ryan and company off the field. If the Falcons are able to control time of possession, Carolina could be in trouble.
The Panthers have also been one of the more highly penalized teams in the league, and head coach Matt Rhule emphasized that as a point of concern so far. Those can obviously kill promising drives and a team like Atlanta that’s hungry for its first win would love to capitalize on any mistakes. But it looks like another solid game from Mike Davis is in store, and there will be opportunities downfield for Bridgewater given the Falcon’s issues in the secondary.
Furthermore, the defense needs to turn those quarterback hurries into sacks. The Falcons have given up nine sacks this season, and without a threat of Ryan breaking contain, the Panthers should be able to get to him early and often.