The first place Atlanta Falcons can make a huge statement on Sunday. They have the opportunity to continue their winning streak against Carolina, along with distancing themselves from the reigning NFC champions. Confidence is high following consecutive road wins in hostile environments, and it wasn't too long ago that they defeated the Panthers and ended their undefeated season. Both teams don't look drastically different on paper from last season, but the few additions (and subtractions) have been noticeable.
Carolina is still adjusting without Josh Norman. This should be the first week that both rookie cornerbacks get truly tested. Matt Ryan is easily the best quarterback they'll face so far, and the same applies to Julio Jones at wide receiver. Atlanta will have to cope with Kelvin Benjamin, who is off to a strong start this season. Desmond Trufant recently shadowed Amari Cooper and Brandin Cooks during various stages of their respective games. Nobody would be surprised to see Trufant cover Benjamin across the field. That should prove to be a pivotal matchup, along with many others on Sunday. Here are five things to watch for.
Staying committed to the run
It's easy to run the ball on a consistent basis when the offensive line is winning in the trenches opening massive holes. How they face adversity against an outstanding unit is the ultimate challenge this week.
Carolina's front seven is filled with speed, power, and above-average players, so running on them will be extremely difficult. Kyle Shanahan has a tendency to abandon the run, if the running game isn't initially working in the first half. He can't afford to do that against top-tier defenses like Carolina.
There isn't a better linebacker duo in the league than Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. They get off blocks, handle almost every assignment, and frequently make sideline-to-sideline plays. It won't be easy to find openings against them. An unsuccessful running game will likely make play action designs less effective as well. Regardless of the circumstances, they can't allow Carolina to dictate their style. As long as the game remains competitive, they need to keep running the ball.
Utilizing different play calls with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman will eventually spring one big play. In horrific single-digit losses to Tampa Bay and San Francisco last season, they attempted 17 and 13 running plays. Matt Ryan attempted 45 passes in both games. Shanahan's play calling can't be that unbalanced, especially in a tight game.
Stopping runs out of shotgun formations
One of the bigger concerns from Monday night was the front seven's inability to stop runs coming out of the shotgun formation. New Orleans repeatedly ran the ball up the middle without any issues. Sean Payton did an excellent job by taking advantage of Atlanta's sub nickel package. Adrian Clayborn and Derrick Shelby were constantly out of position. Jonathan Babineaux didn't fare much better either. Simple draws and dives up the middle with Mark Ingram resulted in a whopping 71 yards from 11 carries. That is a bad sign, especially with the upcoming matchup against Cam Newton.
Carolina loves operating out of the shotgun. Despite Jonathan Stewart being sidelined with a hamstring injury, they are more than capable of emulating New Orleans' success. Cameron Artis-Payne showed flashes against Minnesota last week. Andrew Norwell, Ryan Kalil, and Trai Turner are one of the top interior offensive line trios in the league. With Newton thriving off read-option designs, they have so many different ways to score on opposing defenses. Dan Quinn hasn't done the defense any favors by playing defensive ends like Shelby out of position. The Falcons have looked vulnerable against the run this year. They'll need a big performance from their front seven to force Carolina's offense into becoming more one-dimensional. That's what ultimately propelled them in last season's remarkable 20-13 upset win.
Exploiting the opposing tackles
If the defensive line is going to generate any pressure on Sunday, it will likely come from the outside. As mentioned above, Carolina's interior line is one of the best units in the league. Opposing defenses have found success by attacking both tackles. Michael Oher allowed two sacks and five hurries against Minnesota, according to Pro Football Focus. That included him being thrown down in highlight-reel fashion by Danielle Hunter. Mike Remmers is on the right side, and he was the one who struggled against Vic Beasley in their previous matchup.
Dwight Freeney and Beasley have a great opportunity to spark a pitiful pass rush. The 36-year old stalwart is coming off his best game in a Falcon uniform. According to Pro Football Focus, he contributed with one sack and four hurries against New Orleans. Freeney schooled Andrus Peat on several occasions. He should pose significant problems for Oher. There are growing concerns about Beasley's development. My colleague Charles McDonald made excellent observations about the young pass rusher's flawed technique. From his poor stance to not engaging quickly enough, he isn't evolving as a player. Beasley can't depend on stunts to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Could moving him to the left side be a problem? The former first round pick's best performance came against Remmers last season, but his other games as a left defensive end were largely underwhelming. If Quinn is trying to experiment with different defensive linemen (Shelby, Tyson Jackson, Ra'Shede Hageman), he may want to consider putting Beasley back on the right side. The planned move to strong-side linebacker spot appears to be already over. Something needs to drastically change for this defense to become even competent. It starts with the pass rush being more productive. Depending on an aging Freeney isn't going to be the answer. It starts with Beasley showing more than two flashes a game.
Containing Greg Olsen
Besides the insufferable non-existent pass rush, allowing tight ends to roam freely downfield continues to be a yearly tradition for the Falcons defense. They have allowed tight ends to score four touchdowns in three games. Before crashing out of Tampa Bay, Austin-Seferian Jenkins beat Sean Weatherspoon in man coverage for a 30-yard touchdown. Clive Walford and Brandon Myers found openings in their soft zone coverage. Coby Fleener scored on a well-executed play-action design, before following up with three receptions that went for twenty years or more. Opposing tight ends have taken advantage of their zone coverage alignments on a weekly basis.
Greg Olsen has proven to be a matchup nightmare over the past five seasons. The reliable tight end is a crafty route-runner, who can stretch the field and make catches in traffic. The Falcons actually limited him to four receptions for 40 yards at home last season. Nothing indicates that they will come close to matching that performance. Quinn's defense allows far too many opportunities for tight ends to make catches on crossing patterns and out-routes, before slipping into an open crease for a big play. De'Vondre Campbell is likely to be sidelined again. His speed and range could have been a difference maker towards containing Olsen. Sean Weatherspoon has filled in admirably for the past two games, but doesn't have the range to handle downfield coverage responsibilities.
Julio Jones being more involved
With Ryan constantly finding open receivers against Oakland and New Orleans, he was able to spread the ball around. That will likely change against a stout Panthers' defense. Fewer openings usually translate into Jones receiving more targets. While maintaining a proper run-pass balance is essential for the offense, Ryan could lean on Jones to move the chains and break open a disciplined defense. Mohamed Sanu is dealing with a shoulder injury, although he isexpected to play on Sunday. Carolina's linebackers do an exceptional job covering tight ends. Justin Hardy and Taylor Gabriel made plays last Monday, but shouldn't be depended on for more than three to five targets.
Jones has been relatively quiet, given his standards. Defenses are clearly structuring their entire game plan towards stopping him. After being targeted 203 times last season, it's impossible not to recognize their game plan. Ryan has been forced into making adjustments by getting other receiving options more involved. It's been mostly successful, but the level of competition hasn't been anywhere close to Carolina's level. With Freeman and Coleman emerging as dangerous receivers out of the backfield, that could lead to less double teams for Jones on underneath routes. As for deeper routes, Ryan hasn't been shy about throwing a sixty-yard bomb into double coverage. Regardless of how Carolina matches up against Jones, expect Shanahan to make it a priority to heavily feature him. He appears to be healthy based on participating in practice this week.