Game preview: Panthers at Falcons

Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WSPA) – The Panthers vs. Falcons game is previewed ahead of Sunday’s NFC South showdown in Atlanta, Ga.

This is part of a season-long preview series where we’ll break down both teams, primarily the opponent, ahead of the matchup and finish with some ‘keys of the game’ for the Panthers.

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Atlanta Falcons 

A lot can change in a matter of weeks, and the Atlanta Falcons are experiencing that first hand. Following a 1-3 start, they’ve rattled off two straight wins and find themselves right back in the playoff picture (currently 8th in the NFC). 

A lot of this can be attributed to improved play from Matt Ryan, who’s only 300+ yard games have come in these last two wins. It shouldn’t go without saying, however, that these victories have come against the Jets and Dolphins, who boast a combined 2-11 record. Still, the Falcons have found some rhythm through the air. 

Ryan, in his 14th season, has completed 68% of his passes for 1668 yards with 12 touchdowns to four interceptions. That’s pretty much in line with what he’s been throughout his career. He’s a pure pocket passer with exceptional accuracy, and even though he doesn’t have his top target of the last decade in Julio Jones, he has a new option in the passing game that’s taken the league by storm in recent weeks. 

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – OCTOBER 24: Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons throws the ball during the fourth quarter in the game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Rookie tight end Kyle Pitts has lived up to the billing as the No. 4 overall selection out of Florida. At 6’6”, just under 250 pounds with 4.44 (40 yard dash) speed makes him a mismatch on every down. He towers over defensive backs and blazes past linebackers, forcing opposing defenses to pay extra attention to him routinely. That of course has opened up opportunities for others such as Calvin Ridley, who’s extremely talented in his own right, particularly at running crisp routes and creating separation. Pitts’ 471 receiving yards (which leads the team) is an NFL record for a rookie tight end through his first six games. That’s just a glimpse into the rare talent he is. Pitts lines up virtually everywhere on the field, making it imperative the Panthers have a plan for every situation. 

Ridley has been somewhat overshadowed by the Pitts hype, and although he’s not having the breakout many expected he’s still a dangerous weapon in the offense capable of big plays, especially getting yards after the catch. 

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – OCTOBER 03: Kyle Pitts #8 of the Atlanta Falcons warms up before the game against the Washington Football Team at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

It only took eight years, but the Falcons have somehow unleashed Cordarrelle Patterson. The RB/WR hybrid has essentially overtaken Mike Davis as the lead back in the offense. He’s made the most of his chances and has a team-high six total touchdowns. On the rushing side he’s averaging over four yards per carry on 55 carries for 233 yards. He’s even more dynamic as a receiver out of the backfield, with 27 catches (2nd on the team) and four touchdowns (a team-high). Mike Davis is still a viable option for them particularly in short-yardage situations. The Panthers are certainly familiar with him and know what he brings to the table as he served as their lead back for the majority of 2020.

The defense has cashed in on big play opportunities as well in recent weeks. They forced just two turnovers through the first four games of the season, but have recorded three in the past two games. They’re expected to get two of their starting corners back as well, which will be a big boost to the secondary. Those two being Avery Williamson and former Clemson Tiger A.J. Terrell. 

Grady Jarrett is a dominant force along the defensive line and routinely ends up in the backfield. He’s a disruptive lineman in their 3-4 scheme and leads the team with five quarterback hits. He also has a sack this year, but primarily takes on double teams and blows up running lanes in the ground game. Another player to keep an eye on is Deion Jones, a multi-purpose playmaker who leads the linebacker corps. 

Carolina Panthers

As stated at the beginning of the Falcons segment: a lot can change in a matter of weeks. The once undefeated Panthers now find themselves in the midst of a four-game skid. Sam Darnold continues to struggle and the offensive line issues, among others, remain. 

There is plenty of blame to go around for the Panthers decline over the last month. Darnold’s play has regressed, the offensive line is allowing an average of 3.5 sacks per game, and the receivers have dropped a slew of passes. Three Panthers are among the league’s top ten in dropped passes: Robby Anderson (6), Chuba Hubbard (6), D.J. Moore (5). 

Darnold was benched in last week’s loss to the Giants, and is now facing pressure amid rumors of Carolina seeking out trade partners to upgrade the position. But at least for now Darnold has the vote of confidence from head coach Matt Rhule and will start this week at Atlanta. Needless to say, he’s still on thin ice and a solid performance against the NFC South rival would help lengthen the leash. 

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – OCTOBER 17: Sam Darnold #14 of the Carolina Panthers escapes the tackle from Dalvin Tomlinson #94 of the Minnesota Vikings during the second half at Bank of America Stadium on October 17, 2021 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Cam Erving was a full participant in practice this week and is thus in line to return as the starting left tackle. That should help some, but the line has struggled all season long. That said it’s still an upgrade, and center Matt Paladis looks good to go as well. They will, however be without rookie slot receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. 

Defensively, they’ll likely be getting linebacker Shaq Thompson back, which would be a huge asset. Thompson was making an impact early on both in pass coverage and against the run. After allowing an average of 45 rushing yards in the first three games, they’re now allowing nearly 160 yards per contest. Part of that is due to the opponents they have played, but that number needs to decrease if they hope to get things back on track. Thompson return could help mark the beginning of that improvement. And their depth on the defensive line with Daviyon Nixon returning should aid in those efforts. 

Keys to the game

Limit Pitts, Ridley: You’re not going to effectively remove Kyle Pitts and Calvin Ridley from getting their catches, but you can minimize their overall impact on the game. Avoiding the big play from these two dynamic athletes will help keep the Panthers in control and avoid a disastrous start.

Protect Darnold: This isn’t going to just be solved with one thing. This will require a good, or at least functioning run game, receivers making plays and the line picking up stunts etc. Plus, Darnold’s decision making plays a key role as well. All in all, if Darnold is upright and able to work with a plan instead of chaos, they’ll maximize their chances at victory. 

Score early: This has been a key for a few of their games this season, because frankly they’re not yet built to consistently play from behind. Quick starts will go a long way in providing comfort, and can help them maintain balance on offense.

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