The first time these two teams met, the Falcons were able to break records and get players cut. Matt Ryan threw for 500 yards while Julio Jones went for over 300 yards in an offensive display few had expected. In many ways, both teams have changed somewhat since that game. Injuries has changed the look of both teams, so these match-ups aren’t quite the same as last time. Here’s how it shakes out in the second game between these division rivals.
Note: Player assessments partially based on 2016 PFF grades
In the trenches
The Falcons offensive line has played very good football lately. Led by Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, this unit is giving Ryan time to pass and blocking well in the running game. They will be facing a Panthers front that doesn’t consistently generate pressure with their front four, but also one that is very stingy against the run. On the outside, Ryan Schraeder has proven he’s worth the contract extension he received several weeks ago, while Jake Matthews has been improving all year and is playing some of his best football in the home stretch. Andy Levitre has been very good at LG with Chris Chester being the lone “replaceable” player on this line, and even he has been playing better lately.
The Panthers once dominating defensive front is not quite the same anymore. Kawann Short started the year slow, but has been back to his high-level of play lately. Star Lotulelei has had a down year next to him on the interior. Kony Ealy has not been the pass rusher they hoped he would be on the outside, while Charles Johnson (who may not play) has been in apparent decline for a while now. Their best edge rusher is Mario Addison, who is currently questionable to play. If he’s in, he can be effective but he’s no Von Miller or Justin Houston either. The Panthers have some great linebackers, tho, with Thomas Davis continually defying father time and Shaq Thompson playing very well recently. If Luke Kuechly is able to play, he’s a force in the middle. If he sits out, A.J. Klein will easily be the weakest link in this linebacking corps.
I don’t believe the Falcons will have the same success running the ball as they did against the 49ers. The Panthers do a very good job in shutting down the run. However, their inability to consistently generate pressure on the QB could mean another big day for the offense. Given the success the Falcons have had against top-tier pass rushing units this year, there’s every reason to believe the offensive line will be able to play well here.
The skill positions
Reports out of Falcons practices this week indicate that barring a setback, Julio Jones will return on Saturday to face the Panthers. When he’s on the field, he’s a game changer and his return couldn’t come at a more perfect time. Matt Ryan has continued to build his case for MVP consideration, throwing 5 TDs in the two games Julio missed. Mohamed Sanu has found his groove with this offense, functioning as a decent possession receiver who will fight for extra yards. Taylor Gabriel is arguably one of the fastest players in the league, giving the Falcons another downfield weapon to strike with. Aldrick Robinson is yet another fast receiver who netted over 100 yards in Julio’s absence last week. Levine Toilolo isn’t a dynamic tight-end, so I’d expect him to be a non-factor. Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are both excellent on the ground and both capable of running good routes.
Panthers rookie CB James Bradberry has improved his play all year and has turned in a good season for the Panthers secondary overall. Daryl Worley is also playing at a decent level, though the quality of competition is a factor to consider here as well. In nickel sets, Leonard Johnson is a weakness the Falcons will likely look to exploit, as he’s playing at a poor level overall. Safeties Tre Boston and Kurt Coleman are playing around league average, while “box” safety Michael Griffin is definitely having a down year.
Put simply: this Falcons offense is ridiculously loaded with weapons right now. The fact that they were able to score 40+ points without Julio speaks to the depth of this corps. Do you want speed? Julio, Gabriel, Robinson and Coleman have it. Want hands? Sanu and Hardy can pull it down. Physicality? Devonta, Coleman, Julio and Sanu can punish you. As long as the Falcons can keep Matt Ryan clean, this is a match-up they should be heavily favored in.
Ultimately, the Panthers defense is at it’s best when it can generate pressure with their front four and drop seven into coverage. Right now, the only player in that defensive front that is playing at a high level is Kawann Short. Unless the guys around him can step up considerably, Ryan should have a clean pocket to pass out of. If that holds true, Atlanta just has too many weapons to contend with. This would be a tough match-up for a healthy defense, much less one that is as banged up as the Panthers is.