For the first time since December 28th, 2014, the Atlanta Falcons are one win away from securing a playoff spot. They are facing the same opponent as that fateful day in the Carolina Panthers.
Unlike two years ago, the Falcons aren’t in a do-or-die situation. They don’t have the worst defense in the league or play in an abysmal division. Dan Quinn and the coaching staff have built a formidable contender that is capable of making a deep run in January.
Despite being essentially eliminated, Carolina will provide a sturdy test. They aren’t going to lay down against a bitter division rival. By facing the reigning MVP and disciplined defense, the Falcons aren’t going to ease into a third consecutive victory. Matt Ryan tends to struggle in Carolina. What better way for the MVP candidate to become one of the clear favorites, then by overcoming a notorious obstacle. Here are five things to watch for on Saturday.
Containing a rejuvenated Jonathan Stewart
In their last two previous matchups, Carolina has been without their reliable running back. Stewart’s absence forced the offense into becoming more one-dimensional. Cam Newton attempted thirty passes, while a trio of running back replacements only received 12 carries in their shocking 20-13 loss last season. The unbalanced game plan put more pressure on a below average receiving corps and shaky offensive line. Vic Beasley and Dwight Freeney harassed Newton in those respective defeats. Carolina’s offense isn’t built on throwing the ball 35 to 40 times a game. Attempting to partake in a shootout against the Falcons is the equivalent of playing with fire.
Look for offensive coordinator Mike Shula to lean on Stewart, especially with Newton’s ailing right shoulder. Teams have found success running on Atlanta’s undersized front seven. They also realize how the Falcons offense is capable of scoring at will. Carolina could follow Philadelphia’s blueprint by establishing the run and running a more ball control style offense. Stewart was outstanding against Washington, as he was using vicious stiff arms and constantly breaking tackles. The veteran running back’s cutting ability created bigger gains as well. They heavily featured him on Monday night and won’t hesitate to do so again, due to this particular matchup. Dan Quinn’s defense can’t be reckless against an elusive running back like Stewart.
Julio Jones’ return
Jones will officially return on Saturday. The coaching staff wisely rested him over the past two weeks to get healthy for this crucial stretch. Jones is known as a human highlight reel. It was taken to another level during Atlanta’s previous two victories over Carolina. The superstar wide receiver’s catch over Luke Kuechly will always be a historic moment based on Carolina’s undefeated season being ended in the same game. Jones won the battle of All-Pro players on an extraordinary play. That performance was topped in October, as he caught 12 passes for 300 yards and a game-sealing touchdown.
Jones exploited Carolina’s bizarre decision to play man coverage. Their secondary didn’t have a chance leaving inexperienced and below average cornerbacks on an island. From running digs to crossing routes, Jones repeatedly found himself open downfield. It left the Panthers hopeless, which translated into Bene Benwikere being jobless.
It’s difficult to set statistical expectations for Jones. He is coming off a two \-week layoff and Carolina’s coaching staff is bound to make adjustments. They could allow promising rookie James Bradberry to shadow him, along with providing safety help. Between his overall recovery to how the Panthers coaching staff implements a strategy towards containing him, there are plenty of variables to watch for in a compelling divisional game.
Matt Ryan face a daunting familiar task
The Falcons have lost three out of their last four games in Carolina. With a limited supporting cast, it’s hard to chastise Ryan for the poor results. He simply hasn’t fared well against Ron Rivera’s defense on the road. To struggle against a top-tier defense shouldn’t be surprising, given Atlanta’s issues over the past three seasons. Carolina is well-disciplined and filled with above average players at every level. Both teams have gone in opposite directions, as Ryan is a MVP candidate and Carolina’s defense has slightly declined. They don’t have any consistent edge rushers, which puts pressure on a secondary lacking stability. That is a bad combination against Ryan, who has a passer rating of 136.9 on deep passes this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
The 2016 Pro Bowler should expect to face zone-based coverages. It’s highly unlikely that he will connect with Jones on three plays over 40 yards again. As long as the interior line holds up against Kawann Short, Ryan should feel comfortable against four man rushes. Carolina’s defense is one of the more blitz heavy units in the league. Kuechly’s likely absence opens up more opportunities as well. A.J. Klein is a decent run defender, but doesn’t possess much range or instincts to excel in coverage. Derek Carr regularly targeted him in their matchup three weeks ago. Look for Mohamed Sanu to be active in the slot similar to how Michael Crabtree found success against Carolina’s defense. It’s hard to label Ryan as the MVP favorite, given how the league tends to favor players with better records. Finishing 11-5 and beating two divisional opponents could be the recipe to win this prestigious award.
Greg Olsen isn’t going anywhere
Since joining Carolina in 2011, Olsen has scored six touchdowns in 11 games against the Falcons. He remains as the lone consistent receiving option for Newton. The star tight end is a vertical threat, who can surprise linebackers and safeties with his speed and crafty route running. Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit highlighted Olsen’s ability in his insightful season preview. Dan Quinn’s young defense tends to struggle against seam stretching tight ends. They can’t afford to let Olsen find acres of space downfield like they did against Travis Kelce.
It will be interesting to see how the defense adjusts following their previous matchup against a top tier tight end. Carolina isn’t creative with Olsen compared to how Kansas City uses Kelce. Keanu Neal shadowed him for the majority of the game. He played a significant role in shutting out Olsen for three quarters. Eventually, the matchup became too overbearing for the rookie strong safety in the fourth quarter. De’Vondre Campbell is still recovering from a concussion, as Paul Worrilow will replace him in the starting lineup. They don’t have many players that can cover Olsen without support. It will take a collective effort to keep Newton from connecting with his favorite target for another big game.
Jalen Collins’ value
The second year cornerback will be active on Saturday. His return couldn’t happen at a better time against an offense featuring two massive wide receivers. When the front office selected Collins in the second round, many fans were initially surprised. Quinn prefers bigger cornerbacks, who possess good length and plays in a physical manner. Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson had plenty of success against the Falcons in 2014. Carolina created their own monster duo in Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess. They needed to address these future divisional matchups. It made sense to pick Collins, especially when every team needs three capable cornerbacks on their roster
This is a big opportunity for Collins to show why the Falcons invested in him. He was drafted for these particular games against six foot five wide receivers. Since replacing Desmond Trufant, Collins has shown improvement from a technical standpoint. He isn’t falling for double moves or stutter steps like last season. Locating the ball and turning his hips remains an issue. That was evident against Arizona, as you can recognize some stiffness when covering Michael Floyd and John Brown. Benjamin and Funchess aren’t capable of exploding past opposing cornerbacks. Both wide receivers have been extremely underwhelming this season. They can still draw penalties and make plays in traffic. Collins’ discipline will be tested against this duo. A possible matchup against Ted Ginn isn’t out of the question either. These next two weeks are going to indicate where Collins stands as a player.