The Atlanta Falcons will face one of their toughest match-ups on Sunday when they take on the Carolina Panthers. This also happens to be the Falcons first division game and an important one for putting them back in the thick of the division race. The Panthers defense has returned to form this year and will be a very tough match-up for a Falcons offense that has struggled so far this season. Let’s take a look at how these two units match up.
Note: Assessments are based on scores from PFF Edge.
In the trenches
The Falcons offensive line is playing well overall, but there are definitely some areas of concern. Alex Mack is one of the best centers in the league and should help protect the pocket from the middle. Andy Levitre is probably the next most consistent (and above average) player at left guard. Tackles Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder have had better seasons, but they’re playing around league average at this point. Second year player Wes Schweitzer had been improving, but the game against the Jets was a setback for him. If the Falcons are going to have success, Schweitzer has to bounce back because the Panthers have the ability to generate pressure up the middle with guys like Kawaan Short and their propensity to blitz this season.
The Panthers feature a very good defensive front that is second in the league in sacks. Part of their pressure comes from their high usage of blitzes this year, but they do have guys that can get home by themselves. Kawaan Short is easily one of the best pass rushing defensive tackles in the league. Star Lotulelei is a decent run stopper but is not particularly dominant. Charles Johnson is not the player he once was, but still plays well against the run. Mario Addison is a true 3 down defensive end who can stop the run and bring pressure. Julius Peppers comes in to rush the passer and has been a beast this year, bringing in 7.5 sacks so far.
This is a match-up that Falcons fans should dread. This is a team that has found its way back to pressuring the passer and has also done well against the run. Unless the Falcons offensive line can finally get all 5 guys to have a good game at the same time, the nod has to go to this very good Carolina front.
The skill positions
Matt Ryan had one of his best games of the year (minus the weather induced fumbles) against the Jets and has had a good season overall. Julio Jones is still one of the best receivers in the league while Mohamed Sanu is having one of his best seasons ever. Taylor Gabriel has not quite lit it up like he did last year, though he has the speed to break one off at any moment. Given the Panthers propensity to blitz this year, he’s a name to pay attention to. Austin Hooper has played well but isn’t the dominant receiving threat many fans thought he’d be. Tevin Coleman has been under utilized this year, particularly as a receiver. Devonta Freeman is playing great football, but inexplicably isn’t getting nearly as many carries this year. This is a good unit that is clearly under-performing. If the Falcons are going to have any chance of putting up points, Steve Sarkisian will need to find a way to utilize anyone and everyone in this group.
Luke Kuechly anchors this defense and is easily one of the best middle linebackers in the league. Next to him, Thomas Davis has also been an ageless wonder with both guys being a force against the run and decent in coverage. Shaq Thompson rounds out the linebacker group that has to be considered one of the best in the NFL. At safety, the quality drops off somewhat. Kurt Coleman has been a very good player for the Panthers, but injuries have slowed him down this year until recently. Strong safety Mike Adams is clearly on the backside of his career, but has been a quality player over his career and is playing decently this year as well. Second year corner James Bradberry is the best CB on the team but is not a shutdown corner. He may end up shadowing Julio Jones all day. Daryl Worley has struggled this year while Captain Munnerlyn has as well, though Munnerlyn is a veteran who has played well in the past.
Guys like Kuechly and Davis lift the overall quality of this group, but there are some definite liabilities in their secondary. If one of Julio/Sanu/Gabriel can go off, the Falcons should win this overall match-up, even if just slightly.
I said on the podcast this week that this match-up was one of the closest on the year for the Falcons. There are ways for the Falcons to score, but it will not be easy and Steve Sarkisian will need to call his best game ever for them to do so. He is likely the biggest wild card here and what he does on Sunday could be the difference in the game. As it stands, this match-up is too close to call for either team.