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Stopping Cam Newton still tops the list.
After two games against pretty good teams in the Broncos and Chargers, the Falcons are getting a Panthers squad that is, to put it charitably, reeling. There's a ton of talent on this Panthers team. It's just not evident from their performance of the last couple of weeks, which includes defensive ineptitude and a meltdown performance from Cam Newton.
That doesn't mean the Falcons can afford to or will take Carolina lightly, because we know these Falcons simply don't do that. It does mean that there are easy-to-identify, intelligent ways to plan for this Panthers team that will make the going much easier as the Falcons quest for 4-0.
Here's the four matchups the Falcons need to be cognizant of and take advantage of after kickoff tomorrow.
The Secondary versus Cam Newton
You're going to want to rush Cam Newton, force him to make mistakes and give him no opportunity to get comfortable in the pocket. Ultimately, though, what will put the nails in the Panthers' teal-and-silver coffin are turnovers.
Newton makes extremely quick decisions to begin with, and those decisions are trimmed down to milliseconds when the pass rush is closing in. That means if he sees a receiver with a little wiggle room, he'll fire the ball to him, sometimes before he has a chance to register the safety lurking a few yards away.
With a turnover-minded, opportunistic secondary, the Falcons have a chance to pick Newton multiple times. The key will be to disguise their coverages and play the kind of zone that makes Newton think he has a chance at making the throw. Goad him into mistakes, and Thomas Decoud and William Moore can make him pay.
Michael Turner & Offensive Line versus Dwan Edwards
Turner does better on runs to the outside than up the middle, it's true, but nonetheless he tends to bounce toward the middle of the line. C'est la vie.
Given that reality—and assuming at least 33% of Turner's runs go up the middle—it's important that he be able to fight by Dwan Edwards in the middle of the line. That means quality blocking from Todd McClure, Justin Blalock and Garrett Reynolds, too. I think Turner's going to have a nice game overall against the Panthers, but if he's stymied repeatedly by Edwards, it's going to cost the Falcons downs and momentum.
Matt Ryan versus Panthers Secondary
We covered the pass rush yesterday, so let's talk a little bit about the Panthers secondary. While they haven't been stellar through the first three weeks, there's one thing the Teal Cats corners and safeties do quite well: Get their hands on the ball.
They only have a handful of picks, but the Panthers have tipped 15 passes in just three games. You can give some credit to the front seven for that—four of those tips, by my likely incorrect count—but the Panthers secondary is populated by players who have enough closing speed and good enough instincts to be around the ball.
The best way to fight this, of course, is by having a quarterback who can stand back, find the open receiver and throw a bullet. The way Ryan's played of late, that shouldn't be a major issue, but 'ware the cornerbacks.
Matt Bosher versus the Panthers Returners
Against an offense capable of gaining gobs of yardage, it's especially important for the Falcons to pin the Panthers deep and force them to drive down a long field, where their chances of faltering or making a mistake increases.
That falls on Matt Bosher, who has the ability to put the Panthers somewhere in Eastern Siberia to start every drive. He just has to do it consistently.
What are your matchups to watch?