The Falcons had to be looking forward to this game after the Texans. After all, it was clear the Texans were going to be a legitimate challenge, while they managed to handle the Panthers earlier in the season with (relative) ease.
Unfortunately, there's still Cam Newton to worry about.
No quarterback in the NFL has been more inconsistent—with the exception of St. Tebow—and more jaw-dropping than Newton. Against Detroit, he threw four picks. Last week, he threw a touchdown against Tampa Bay, avoided a turnover and rushed for three touchdowns. He's about as dynamic a player as there is in the NFL.
Fortunately for the Falcons, he still has weaknesses. He's too willing to pull the ball down and run, which plays into the Falcons' hands due to their inability to rush the passer but excellence against opposing ground games. He also throws picks—14 against 13 touchdowns for the season—and misses receivers at times.
Despite those weaknesses, Newton remains the key to the game. If he plays exceptionally well, he'll put the Falcons' defense on its heels and force the offense to catch up. Given Michael Turner's nagging groin injuries, that may be more easily said than done. So it becomes incumbent upon the defense—sadly, it always seem to be the defense—to shut him down and let the offense work out its many kinks.
After the jump, some thoughts on how to beat the Panthers and a prediction.
- Run. The Panthers are the proud owners of one of the league's weakest run defenses. Against Carolina earlier this season, all Turner did was rack up a season high 139 yards and average 5.1 yards per carry, his second-highest average of the season. He basically ate their front seven alive.
The Falcons will have to get a little more creative this time around to take advantage of this glaring weakness. Turner's been a shadow of himself the last two weeks due to a combination of stout front sevens, nagging groin injuries and reduced carries. Two of those can be remedied this week, but that groin injury will likely sap a little bit of his explosiveness. If he's up to it, the Falcons will still give him 20 carries.
This is the perfect week to get Jacquizz Rodgers involved outside the tackles, giving him a chance to blow by the Panthers and pick up some big gainers. Wear out the defense early with a thunder and lightning attack and it'll be a great day for the Falcons.
Best of all, the Panthers are down two defensive tackles in Sione Fua and Terrell McClain. This could get ugly.
- Get after Newton. As a rookie quarterback, Newton's prone to the same kinds of mistakes as every other rookie quarterback. Pressure the kid and he'll toss interceptions, fumble the ball and generally make mistakes. Don't get that pressure and he can tear you a new Falcohole.
The Falcons have been exceedingly inconsistent in delivering pressure. Their best move at this point, given Newton's mobility, might be to get the linebackers and speedy rushers like Lawrence Sidbury into the backfield. That would force the dreaded dropping Abe into coverage move we all loath, but he and his fellow starting ends have really struggled to generate pressure. Tailor the pass rush to the quarterback, I'm saying.
If you can't get the rush going, you have to be able to stop him when he takes the ball down and runs. Having 'Spoon as a spy would not be a bad idea.
- Switch over to the short passing game. There's a growing chorus of fans, pundits and even players—yes, I'm looking at Roddy White—who want the Falcons to stop taking deep strikes until they start working. Ignore the fact that it's a bit of a paradox, there.
I'm not advocating the wholesale abandonment of a deeper passing game, but I do think the Falcons have had real success on slants and crossing routes shallow and across the middle. Guys like Harry Douglas, Roddy White and Julio Jones will always fight for more yardage and the Falcons are currently doing nothing creative to open up the long game, so why push it?
Against the Panthers and their troubled front seven, I think it's a smart move to focus on short, accurate passing. Abuse the defense with a heavy dose of Gonzalez, the top three receivers over the middle and Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers in the flats. A methodical approach early will help the Falcons eat through time, wear down the Panthers and hopefully get touchdowns on the board.
I'm sure you have further suggestions, so please share them in the comments.