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Breakin' It Down: Panthers Edition

It was a frustrating loss in Jacksonville, that's for sure. A team that was at least competent on offense this year with a piss poor offensive coordinator has somehow managed to go downhill faster than Britney Spears' career (SHE'S A HUMAN BEING!) If they're going to beat the Panthers, the Falcons will have to finally find some of that magical mojo that had their running game working last year. Let's dip, dive and socialize:

OFFENSE
Passing Game: The Panthers can be deadly here, and I'm going to name this a key to the game right now. Steve Smith is an elite wide receiver who is very, very hard to cover. DeAngelo Hall will have his work cut out for him. The Panthers also have a bunch of decent secondary options in Drew Carter, Keary Colbert & Rookies, meaning they still have a place to go if Smith is somehow stifled. The plus side here is that I don't trust Jake Delhomme any further than I can throw him strapped to a piano. He has had a terrific year so far, but he's never been touted for consistency. He could show up to play or he might chuck three interceptions; I wouldn't say my money is on the latter, but I wouldn't bet against it. So consider the Panther passing game something that could go either way.

The Falcons are going to be in trouble here if they're forced to rely on their passing game. Joey Harrington's already been sacked an incredible 13 times in two games, and now he's up against Julius  Peppers. That's not a good recipe for having time to pass, so he'll have to count on the receivers running quick routes and getting open downfield. Because he can't count on that, the Falcons should be looking for play action and other plays which develop quickly or offer some misdirection. I just don't want to get Joey Joe Joe Junior Shabadoo killed, is all.
Edge: The Panthers; Roddy White is emerging and they're due for a breakout, but Carolina has Steve Smith. To me that's a significant advantage.

Running Game: The numbers are better for the Panthers so far, but I can't say I've been too impressed with their backs so far. DeShaun Foster is capable of piling up yardage but he's next to useless in the red zone. DeAngelo Williams is a good young player who seems to be following the same career trajectory so far, minus the crippling injuries. The offensive line for the Panthers has looked much better than our own so far, but they're not opening massive holes and I have to like what Babineaux and Grady Jackson have been doing in the middle so far. I'd expect a reasonably effective ground game, but it's perfectly reasonable to think neither back will score.

The Falcons just need to jumpstart this thing. Our offensive line has been single-handedly sabotaging us for the first two games, but that has to stop eventually...right? Dunn and Norwood haven't looked great so far, but all Norwood needs is one long rambling run and we're back on the saddle. They just need to open some holes big enough for a person to actually fit through, and I have a feeling that this is the game it finally happens in.
Edge: The Falcons. Call me crazy, but I think they're capable of much better numbers than we've seen from them so far.

DEFENSE
Run Defense: The Panthers have allowed slightly less than a hundred yards per game on the ground, a reasonably effective number. Because it's only two game it's difficult to know how legitimate their run defense really is, but the Panthers have always been good up front. The Falcons will need a strong performance from at least one of the backs to grind down the clock and wear out the Panthers defense; it might actually be time to get Pinner a few carries. With his size, he might be able to wear down the defense enough to punch Norwood through. I'm not sold on Petrino taking that tack, though.

The Falcons have been allowing 127 yards per game on the ground, which doesn't speak well to the front seven at all. The Panthers have done a pretty good job of piling up yardage so far, so the Falcons will need their athletic linebacking corps to clamp down hard. Failing that, the Falcons need to keep a closer eye on DeAngelo Williams near the red zone than DeShaun Foster.
Edge: The Panthers by a smidgen. They just have the better numbers so far, but that's not a lock to continue.

Pass Defense: The Panthers are allowing 194 pass yards a game and have a reasonably talented group of corners and safeties. They're about as blah as you can get while still being effective, so whatever. The Falcons' success against the Panthers in the passing game is going to depend more on what kind of rush they get with fearsome quarterback murderer Julius Peppers and the rest of the front seven, not what the cornerbacking corps is doing.

The Falcons, meanwhile, will need to cover well. Lewis Sanders still doesn't have any eyebrows after being scorched last week against the Jaguars, so this the responibility is going to fall on DeAngelo Hall and the safeties. The Panthers are going to be trying hard to spread the field and will likely have some success in doing so. This is the first real test for the secondary, too, because the Panthers are the first team we've played without a Pop Warner air attack.
Edge: Again, the Panthers. They simply have the better numbers and aside from DeAngelo Hall, we don't have anyone to really contend with them. Jimmy Williams could be very important for us.

SPECIAL TEAMS
Last week the special teams were awful, with Norwood getting two kick returns for 44 yards (not awful) and Jennings getting one punt return for 3 yards (very awful). Even worse, Mattster Prater whiffed badly on two field goals. This week things at least should be better on the kicking game, as we've employed famed Turok the Dinosaur Hunter companion Morten Andersen as kicker again. He doesn't have fantastic range, but he's not going to miss by half a football field on a 30 yard kick. The return game will have to get going on its own.

The Panther return game also isn't great, but John Kasay is a reliable kicker.
Edge: The Falcons on this one, but by a narrow margin.

Final Prediction: The Falcons will put up a better fight in this one, possibly even scoring as many as two (!) touchdowns. In the end it won't be enough to save them from the mighty Steve Smith, however. Carolina wins 24-17.

But hell, let's go Falcons!