To win this game, the Falcons will have to force the Panthers to become a one dimensional team on offense, and then contain Greg Olsen. I’m not nearly as worried about the offense getting going, even though Carolina has a tough defense, because this offense has proven to be virtually matchup-proof and essentially wrecked the Panthers earlier this season.
The reason I’m so concerned with the Panthers becoming one-dimensional is that they have the potential to annihilate the Falcons on the ground, and Atlanta simply can’t allow that to happen. Despite being on the road, they have a clear advantage over this Carolina team with its dinged-up quarterback, lousy offensive line, and sometimes horrific secondary, and a loss here puts a ton of pressure on them to win against the Saints in Week 17, which always manages to be a dicey proposition.
Here are three key matchups I’ll be watching closely on Saturday.
Cam Newton’s legs versus the Atlanta run defense
Newton is dealing with a shoulder injury, as you’ve likely heard by now, and has to be considered something less than 100% as a passer for this upcoming matchup. Newton’s still a capable, dangerous passer with a tremendous arm, so I’m not discounting his ability to punish the Falcons through the air. He’s just so much more dangerous for this Falcons team on the ground, especially with the questions around his shoulder.
This run defense, it should be noted, has not had a successful year. They were able to contain Los Angeles and San Francisco because neither of those teams are particularly threatening through the air, but Carolina has more than one legitimately terrific option on the ground, and can treat passing as a secondary concern. Greg Olsen, as mentioned, makes the passing attack dangerous whether Newton is at 100% or not.
And Newton is unique among NFL quarterbacks because he’s so big, so fast, and so utterly unafraid of contact. He’s on pace to rush for fewer yards and fewer yards per carry than in any of his six NFL seasons, but he’s still scored five times, still averaging 4 yards per tote, and still capable of taking what looks like a solid play for the defense and turning it into a Falcon-strewn field of defeat. Or something like that.
Containing Newton is and always will be a top priority, and you can expect Deion Jones to be tasked with it for large stretches of Saturday’s game after he did such a quality job the last time out. Let’s hope he’s able to again.
Jonathan Stewart versus (you guessed it) the Atlanta run defense
Even if you bottle up Newton, you have to deal with Stewart. His yards per carry in 2016 are at a relatively pedestrian 3.8 per, but that’s mostly because of a handful of dud performances behind the aforementioned lousy Carolina line. When he faces mediocre run defenses, he tends to feast.
For an example, watch Washington’s game against Carolina on Monday Night Football. Stewart ran with power, speed, and righteous indignation over the fact that the Redskins were trying to tackle him with just one or two players, instead of half their team. On one occasion, about eight different Washington defenders made contact before Stewart was finally dragged down, and he finished the game with 25 carries and 132 yards. He’s dangerous, and the Falcons didn’t have to face him the last time out.
Bottling Stewart up needs to be a top priority, in other words, and the Falcons are likely to stumble if they can’t get it done.
Julio Jones versus young Panthers cornerbacks
The last time Julio had the pleasure of facing Carolina, he drew Bene Benikwere and the team’s rookie cornerbacks most of the day, and wound up torching them for exactly 300 yards.
The Panthers cut Benikwere after that effort, and both James Bradberry and Daryl Worley have improved noticeably since the last time these two teams met, allowing Panthers GM David Gettleman to salvage some small measure of pride after he did a lot of weird things that at least indirectly led to the Panthers crashing this season. But Julio, who should return this week, still looms large over the matchup.
The Falcons have been very successful this year when Julio either doesn’t get many yards or doesn’t play, which some have taken as a sign that the offense doesn’t really need him. I disagree, to put it mildly. Against a savvy defense like Carolina’s, and in a game the Falcons really need to win, Julio’s critically important because he soaks up attention, gives opportunities to other players by his mere presence, and always has the potential to absolutely murder this Panthers team to the tune of 100, 200, or (hell, again) even 300 yards. I’m fully expecting a big game, and hopefully that will key the offense.