Make no mistake about it: the Panthers defense will present the most difficult challenge for the Falcons offense so far this year. The Panthers have had one of the top defenses in the league for the past several years, anchored by one of the best linebackers in the league in Luke Kuechly.
The Falcons offense, on the other hand, has been almost unstoppable the last two weeks. After hanging 35 on the Raiders in Oakland, the offense stunned the Saints by scoring 38 points in the Super Dome just 8 days later. This match-up could be a very good one. So who has the edge?
In the Trenches
One of the reasons for the Falcons offensive success has been the play of the offensive line. After a rough start to the season, Jake Matthews has turned in two very solid performances, especially in the running game. Ryan Schraeder is arguably one of the best right tackles playing right now, and is off to a strong start for the season. Free agent signing Alex Mack has been everything he was advertised to be, helping to stabilize the interior of the line while. Andy Levitre has had a strong season as well, with only Chris Chester as the sole weak link so far. This is a line that wants to run and has done a fairly good job of keeping Ryan clean this year.
On the other side, the Panthers feature a formidable front. Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei may be one of the best defensive tackle pairings in the league. Charles Johnson is past his prime, but is still a good defender on the edge. Kony Ealy has shown flashes of but has yet to fully deliver as a pass rusher or consistent edge defender.
The Panthers real strength is in their linebacking corps. Luke Kuechly is arguably the best middle linebacker in the league, capable of stopping the run and dropping into coverage. Thomas Davis is older but is still playing at a high level. Shaq Thompson has great physical traits but hasn’t yet fully put it all together.
This is a very intriguing match up for the Falcons. This is no slouch of a defense and having Kuechly alone makes this a formidable unit. However, the Falcons offensive line has been playing very well the past two weeks, and having Alex Mack in the middle has been a boon this season. I hate doing this, but this match-up is the very definition of a “push.”
The Skill Positions
Matt Ryan has had a nice 2016 season so far, leading the league in passer rating and ranking in the top 5 in yards and TDs. He’s also the highest rated passer by ESPN’s Total QBR metrics. Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman have turned into one of the best running back tandems in the NFL, absolutely destroying the Saints on Monday Night Football. Julio Jones, though relatively quiet thus far, is always a threat to completely take over a game. Mohamed Sanu has been up and down so far, but has shown to be a capable secondary receiving option in this offense. Jacob Tamme is off to a hot start while receivers like Justin Hardy, Aldrick Robinson and even Taylor Gabriel are all getting in on the action. When protected, Ryan has been distributing the ball better than he ever has, and each of these receiving and rushing options have the ability to contribute. This may be one of the most diversified offensive units in the NFL.
On the flip side, the Panthers have Bene Benwikere at CB, who has had a nice season thus far. He’ll likely draw the most match ups against Julio (with safety help of course). Second round Rookie CB James Bradberry will likely be tested, but he has looked decent in the first three games. Behind them, safeties Tre Boston is off to a decent start, but isn’t anyone’s idea of a game changing safety. Kurt Coleman had a nice 2015 season, but has not been as good to start this year. The Panthers nickel corner is Robert McClain, who has managed to not be great - which is shocking to Falcons fans, I know.
If Julio and Sanu are both healthy, this is a match-up that favors the Falcons. When you throw speedy receivers like Gabriel and Robinson into the mix, along with Coleman and Freeman out of the backfield, you have an offense that can overwhelm this Carolina secondary. If the Falcons offensive line can give Matt Ryan time, this is a match up the Falcons should be able to win.
This is a really good match-up, and I’m looking forward to see how it plays out on Sunday. If the Falcons are going to steal this one from the Panthers, the team has to win this battle. I think they can, and I think they will. It will be a tough battle and I’m not expecting over 35 points again, but I do think this offensive line is finding it’s groove at just the right time. There’s no doubt that this is a tough match-up, but I have to give a slight edge to the diversified Falcons offense.