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Four Critical Matchups In The Falcons-Panthers Game

The Carolina Panthers will prove a challenge for the Atlanta Falcons. The question is how much of one.

There are a handful of big-time matchups in this game, ones that will have an effect on the course of the game. There's no question that the Falcons need to establish the running game and shut down the team's rookie sensation at quarterback. If they can jumpstart the offense, this is an eminently winnable game.

Since I ran down the questions of the game yesterday, I'm not going to waste a lot of time with the preamble.

After the jump, four matchups you should be looking out for come tomorrow. 

John Abraham vs. Cam Newton

It's obvious that the Falcons are going to have to put Cam Newton under pressure. Who better to do that than John Abraham?

This week, Abe should be healthy enough to make a difference. With Jonathan Babineaux back, Ray Edwards getting healthier and the Falcons' front four turned in a quality performance last week against the Packers. With enough help, The Predator should be able to get pressure on Newton.

He'll have to, because Newton is one hell of a mobile threat. As I noted yesterday, he's averaging four yards a carry and is perfectly capable of escaping from a collapsing pocket if given a moment. If Abe can get to him off the blind side, it should rattle the rook. The Falcons will need that.

Dunta Robinson/Brent Grimes vs. Steve Smith

The Falcons also have to shut down Newton's best weapon. Steve Smith has been on an absolute tear to start the season, catching 27 passes for an absolutely absurd 609 yards. That equates to 22.6 yards a catch, which would be his career high by a full four yards.

Obviously that average won't hold up over the course of an entire season, but Smith is exceptionally dangerous. The Falcons have to apply a ton of pressure to Newton, yes, but they need to make sure one of his errant lasers doesn't come near Smith's greedy arms.

That task is going to fall primarily to either Dunta Robinson or Brent Grimes. Dunta's physicality and aggressiveness work in his favor, but Grimes has the tremendous athleticism to keep up with Smith, who makes cuts like a knife salesman. Whichever one the Falcons choose, it would be wise to cheat some safety help over their way, because the Panthers are not exactly replete with dangerous receivers out side of Smith. He's the guy to stop.

Charles Johnson vs. Sam Baker

This is one scary matchup.

Sam Baker has become a fan and analyst punching bag over his career in Atlanta, and it's not hard to figure out why. At times he can hold back the pass rusher opposite him with aplomb, and at other times he's a human turnstile, T-Rex arms flailing away at a smaller, swifter predator.

They don't get much swifter than Charles Johnson, who has been telling a joke all season long where opposing offensive tackles are the punchline. He has four sacks already, the product of a pass rusher's natural grace, some serious moves and a lot of athleticism. Aside from Trent Cole and perhaps Clay Matthews, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger challenge for Baker on this season's schedule.

The Falcons would be wise to abandon their stubbornness and actually give Baker some help this time around. Whether that involves dragging a guard over behind him, setting up Ovie Mughelli or Reggie Kelly there to buy Matt Ryan another doesn't particularly matter. Anything to slow down Johnson and keep him from adding to that sack total.

Of course, maybe Baker will step up hugely and hold off Johnson. He's rebounded from bad stretches before. I'm just wary about this one.

Michael Turner vs. Sione Fua

To be fair, this is really Michael Turner versus the entire interior of the Panthers line. Fua just happens to be the one I chose.

One of the things about Turner as a back is his propensity for running up the middle. That's not something I suspect he would choose to do all the time, but whatever. Mike Mularkey and his smoking jacket remain in control of this offense.

The Panthers' defensive line and linebackers have been able to do little to corral running backs this year. Some of Turner's best runs come when he punches it through the interior of the defensive line and comes up with open space in the middle of the field. He may be getting older and a step slower, but it's very hard to bring him down once he's gotten moving, and I suspect he'll be able to do that more than once against a team allowing an average of 4.9 yards a carry. That average, keep in mind, is bolstered by a pathetic game by the Saints, where they averaged just 3.6 yards per carry.

So this should be a big one, too. What do you think of these matchups?