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Falcons vs. Panthers: What to watch for on Sunday

A list of the most significant things to watch for during Sunday's game. Will Atlanta get up for what appears to be their Super Bowl?

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Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It has been nearly a month since the Falcons last played inside the Georgia Dome. Adrian Peterson was running wild, while Falcons fans mercilessly booed Matt Ryan. Circumstances haven’t drastically changed, as Atlanta is essentially out of the playoff race. There is some buzz coming off a win over Jacksonville. With two home divisional games coming up, this bizarre disappointing season can potentially end on a major high note.

The opportunity to end a division rival’s undefeated season will be enticing. O’Brien Schofield has mentioned that the Falcons are aware of Carolina’s sideline antics from two weeks ago. When a team is overmatched on both sides of the ball, additional motivation can provide a positive boost. It only takes one win to give a team confidence. With Jonathan Stewart likely not playing, this should be a much more competitive affair. It certainly can’t get much worse. Here is what you should be watching for on Sunday.

A fast start is essential

One of the biggest reasons behind Carolina’s success is their tendency to beat their opponents from the first whistle. They build huge leads going into halftime with score -- lines such as 27-7 against Green Bay and 23-3 against Dallas. Nobody has forgotten about the Falcons being down 21 points going into the second quarter. Cam Newton doesn’t waste time, along with a defense featuring the best linebacker duo in the league and opportunistic secondary. Dan Quinn’s defense allowed three scoring drives of 80 yards or more to start the game. It doesn’t get more embarrassing than that.

While the defense clearly needs to make stops and get off the field on third down, Kyle Shanahan needs to improvise an aggressive game plan to match Carolina’s tenacity. Devonta Freeman needs to carry the load, regardless of the running game’s efficiency. He became a complete afterthought in their first matchup. The Pro Bowl running back needs to be one of the focal points for Atlanta to pull off this monumental upset. Keeping Carolina’s outstanding defense honest will take the pressure off Ryan, who can’t be forced into throwing more than 40 passes. They need to be successful in basic categories such as third down proficiency and winning the turnover battle. That will come with a fast start, which should result in a lead, or staying within one possession at minimum. Going down two possessions or more will likely be an insurmountable task for this limited offense.

Julio Jones vs. Josh Norman: Part Two

After the first matchup, it was difficult to judge a true winner. Carolina’s insane first quarter put Jones at a disadvantage. Shanahan was forced into abandoning the run, which allowed the Panthers to adjust their entire coverage scheme towards shutting down Jones. According to Pro Football Focus, Norman allowed four catches on six targets for a measly 33 yards in their first meeting. They limited the stud wide receiver to short-intermediate routes. Adjustments have to be made for this matchup to end in a conclusive finish.

There has already been some talk from Jones going into this matchup. Norman is coming off an eventful week, in which he played his worst game of the season, yet still made a superstar wide receiver lose his mind. Odell Beckham, Jr. bailed Norman out by dropping an easy touchdown in the first quarter as well. Can Shanahan put Jones in one-on-one situations like Ben McAdoo did for Beckham? Whether they utilize Jones more in the slot or follow a similar game plan to McAdoo's, Jones needs to take over. Norman has developed into a notable adversary who won’t back down from any challenge. This is such a compelling matchup, which should hopefully play a more significant role in the final outcome than it did two weeks ago.

Offensive line needs to fare much better than previous two meetings

During the last two meetings inside the Georgia Dome, a common theme has circulated involving Matt Ryan taking severe punishment. According to Pro Football Focus, Atlanta has allowed 15 sacks, 10 hits, and 31 hurries in the past two meetings at home against Carolina. Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson, and Star Lotulelei recorded multiple sacks in 2013. They took advantage of an offensive line starting Lamar Holmes and Peter Konz. In 2014, Lotulelei played a pivotal role once again by abusing Justin Blalock. Ryan has taken his fair share of beatings, but both games tend to stick out more than any other game in his career.

The offensive line allowed five sacks two weeks ago. Andy Levitre unsurprisingly struggled against Kawann Short, who is one of the fastest rising defensive stars. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis were successful blitzing at will. Enjoying blitzing success against the Falcons has developed into a routine. Defenses continue to exploit Mike Person’s inexperience. That likely won’t change this week, as Atlanta’s offensive line faces another year of major uncertainty going into the offseason. Allowing Ryan to step up in the pocket rather than run outside would be a revelation. The offensive line will need to regain their cohesiveness from September by recognizing stunts better and not allowing linebackers to run unblocked into the backfield.

Young safeties face formidable challenge

When any defense faces an athletic quarterback and top-tier tight end, both safeties are going to be tested extensively. Newton’s ability to scramble and be efficient on play action (70 percent completion percentage) can cause safeties fits. That can frustrate an aggressive safety like Kemal Ishmael, who doesn’t have much range. Ishmael’s lack of speed was exposed on fifty-yard plays from Alshon Jeffery and Golden Tate last season. Quinn would be wise to keep the former seventh round pick primarily as an in-the-box safety, while Ricardo Allen plays the centerfield role.

Allen has really developed into one of Atlanta’s better free safeties in the past decade. His interception against Minnesota was reminiscent of Thomas DeCoud at his peak in 2012. From converting into a free safety to showing above-average instincts in coverage, Allen has solidified himself in a youthful secondary. He was notably out of position on Ted Ginn’s second touchdown. That was one of his biggest blunders this season. If you read Vaughn McClure’s piece from last August, Allen’s outstanding work ethic is well documented. You can expect the second-year player to be more prepared against Carolina’s complex offense. Both safeties will play vital roles in trying to fluster Newton, along with containing Ginn and Olsen.

Robert Alford putting the past debacle completely behind him

Allen wasn’t the only player to be on the receiving end of Ginn’s blazing speed. Although it was somewhat of a push off, Alford was roasted on a 74-yard touchdown. He also committed three penalties, and Ed Dickson beat him on another touchdown. It was easily his worst game of the season. After putting together a string of solid performances, Alford reverted back to his 2014 form of being over-aggressive, grabbing receivers downfield to gain leverage or biting on double moves.

Last week’s performance was a major step in the right direction. On four targets, Alford didn’t allow a single reception and broke up two passes. He kept Allen Hurns largely subdued. Ginn runs most of his routes on the left side, which means we’ll likely see this matchup occur frequently. Alford can’t bite on double moves or lose a step on go routes. Those are two common routes that Ginn likes to run against opposing cornerbacks.

As we saw in the first bout, Alford’s matchup against Ginn can hold the same amount of significance as Jones against Norman in determining the outcome.  This is an enormous opportunity for one of Atlanta’s most improved players to shake off what was arguably the worst game of his career. They will need him to play lock down coverage, as the offense won’t be able to score more than 20 or 23 points. Carolina will likely throw more with Stewart suffering from a sprained foot.