2014 Record: 7-8-1
Key Additions: WR/TE Devin Funchess, LB Shaq Thompson, OT Michael Oher (teehee), CB Chris Houston, WR/KR Ted Ginn Jr., CB Charles Tillman
Key Subtractions: RB DeAngelo Williams, T Byron Bell, DE Greg Hardy, S Thomas DeCoud
Falcons vs. Panthers in 2014: Falcons 19-Panthers 17, Week 11; Panthers 34, Falcons 3, Week 17
The Panthers suffered a narrow loss and then absolutely creamed the Falcons a year ago in what may have been the worst division of all-time. Drawing sweeping conclusions about this team based on last season, let alone those two games, is probably irresponsible.
That said, we're going to do it anyways. The Panthers that will line up in the first week of the season are arguably a better team than they were a year ago, when they limped into the playoffs with one of the worst offensive lines in football, willed to the finish line by the often incredible Cam Newton. This is a team with an improved receiving corps, a still-excellent defense and Newton, which is enough to entertain a playoff run. They're also a little diminished at running back, not overly deep once you get past the front four on defense, and still packing one of the worst offensive lines in football.
This makes the Panthers difficult to predict for the year ahead, and that alone makes them a dangerous opponent. There's enough talent here to make noise in the NFC South and even in the playoffs, and they haven't won the division the last two years by accident. It's fair to argue they certainly haven't gotten weaker than they were last year, and last year they were the class of a weak division.
At the same time, this is a team that is hugely reliant on Newton's legs. If he can be partially neutralized, contained or harried, the offense slows way down. On the other side of the ball, the defense is legitimately excellent, but lacks the unit speed that teams typically rely on to neutralize the kind of team speed the Falcons can boast this year. The former concern is a bigger one than the latter, but the blueprint for beating this team is there.
Like every team in the NFC South, the Panthers can be beaten, but as that shameful 34-3 beatdown shows, you can't afford to take them lightly. If it sounds like I'm walking a tightrope here, it's because I am. I don't know if the Panthers are a really good team that stumbled a bit a year ago, or a middling team with bright spots that
How should the Falcons attack them?
We turned to Jaxon of Cat Scratch Reader fame for a little scouting report on the 2015 Panthers. Here's what he told me:
The best way to attack the Panther offense in 2015 is to play close to the line of scrimmage with one deep safety and focus on stopping the run and the short pass. If you get the Panthers in 3rd and long you can attack the edges of the Panthers offensive line to pressure Newton. The key will not allowing Newton to break containment up the middle where he can get good yardage. Newton has yet to prove unflappable under pressure and will still occasionally zing a pass over the WRs head. The offensive line is the weakest position group on the team. The opposing DC should test the young guards with stunts and blitzes until they prove they can pick it up.
The Panther defense prefers to play their front seven straight up and keeping the ball in front of them. An offense should take what they give them while also attacking the gaps with the running game. Early last season the Panthers were susceptible to getting gashed right up the middle for big plays. Have success there and it will open things up down the field. Don’t hesitate to test the deep coverage early and often. Focus the passing to edges but run the ball between the tackles.
In other words, if you can blitz the Panthers and establish a ground game, you've got a good shot. The Falcons aren't exactly projected to be elite at either one of those, but they look better than they were a year ago, at the very least. The passing game is never really in question, so long as the team stays reasonably healthy.
The Panthers have proved the last two years that they're the class of this division until they prove otherwise. It's just difficult for me to look at the roster outside of the defense and Cam Newton and project anything approaching greatness, and as learned from the largely one-dimensional Falcons of the last two years, that's not ideal.
If the Falcons are greatly improved, this is a team they can handle, albeit one that's difficult to handle thanks to that potentially potent passing game. If not, we'll find out the hard way later this upcoming season.