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Falcons vs. Panthers: Fascinating Four for Week 9

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Can the Falcons finish their three game road trip on a high note?

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

It took eight games for the Falcons to finally face a divisional opponent. After coping with a bizarre schedule, they travel to Charlotte for a game with fairly high stakes. A win would be a nice way to end a three-game road trip, which couldn’t have started worse. Dan Quinn’s team will look to build on a three-game streak against Carolina that dates back to ending their undefeated season in 2015.

Both teams are coming off decent wins on the road, as they look to keep pace with New Orleans (not used to saying that). All eyes will be on both enigmatic offenses. With Kelvin Benjamin being traded and Greg Olsen still injured, Cam Newton’s supporting cast has never looked more depleted. Matt Ryan played much better last week, but the red zone failures need to be fixed in what should be a close game.

Growing pass rush needs to take charge

With recent stats revealing the offense’s surprising productivity, it has led to some criticism about the defense. An offense can only do so much with a limited amount of possessions. The fact that Atlanta is still managing to manufacture solid drives indicates that Steve Sarkisian isn’t the sole reason behind their recent underwhelming performances. While it doesn’t help that they rank 21st in red zone scoring percentage, it’s something most would assume can only get better as the season progresses. We shouldn’t be seeing any more jet sweeps on fourth and goal or players (Austin Hooper) dropping open touchdowns in rain storms.

The defense isn’t creating enough big plays. From only forcing three turnovers to allowing numerous eight-minute scoring drives, they have played a role in the offense’s regression. It takes a collective effort for a team to achieve success. Not getting off the field on third down and failing to put the offense in great field position hurts everyone. Producing four 75-yard scoring drives is a difficult task for any offense, let alone one that is still searching for an identity. The defense entered this season with high expectations. How anyone could be content about the current state of them is perplexing. Weren’t the days of getting enough stops and not combusting into a million pieces as the main standard over? This group is too talented to be a peak Mike Smith defense.

Quinn’s defensive style is predicated on forcing turnovers. That starts with generating pressure up front. Following a strong start to the season, it’s been a frustrating past month for the defensive line. They did play better against the Jets, but failed to get much going in the first half. Vic Beasley is starting to look fully healthy. After Quinn talked about Takkarist McKinley needing to learn different ways to beat opposing tackles without simply overpowering them, the first-round rookie responded with a glorious sack in the fourth quarter. His absurd get-off combined with a nifty dip is something that he could possibly build on going forward.

Although Quinn has called more blitzes this season, he prefers to rush four on most occasions. Implementing more twists could help build a more sustainable pass rush. Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe showed nice chemistry on the second sack last week. The upcoming matchup looks somewhat favorable on paper. With Newton’s tendency of holding onto the ball for too long and Matt Kalil being a major liability in pass protection, opportunities will be there. The defensive line appears to be geared up after weeks of dealing with injuries and not enough depth. To create more turnovers, it starts with forcing quarterbacks into committing mistakes. Newton is known for being a risk taker. With Benjamin’s departure, the pieces are aligning for a productive day.

Linebacker spotlight

Whenever a defense faces Carolina, the linebackers need to be prepared for everything. Mike Shula’s offense is going to put linebackers in difficult isolated situations. They will need to cover seam routes. Staying disciplined on read option designs is vital for them to avoid second or third and short. Newton is so dangerous on short-yardage plays. Whether it’s using play action to make a cheating linebacker pay or running straight up the middle with their 245-pound quarterback, the Panthers can be so lethal based on their wide variety of options.

The Falcons made an interesting personnel switch by using Vic Beasley at strong side linebacker. This was being discussed last off-season, but Quinn never committed to it. Starting Phillip Wheeler was his preferred choice. It made sense for Beasley to primarily focus on developing as an edge rusher following an underwhelming rookie season. After emerging into a bonafide star, Quinn revisited his original idea when they needed him. Most expected Kemal Ishmael or Sean Weatherspoon to slide into the weak side spot. With De’Vondre Campbell’s ability to play multiple positions, they have the flexibility to incorporate Beasley into their base package.

This change adds a new interesting layer to the defense. Beasley brings a more physical presence up front to help a previously struggling run defense. They can utilize him on blitzes, which can cause opposing offensive lines fits. The possibilities are endless for such an explosive player. Kelvin Beachum felt his wrath off the edge, as he had no other choice than to put him in a sleeper hold and take a penalty. His speed brings another dimension to a base defense that doesn’t exactly have much pass-rushing juice. Beasley is also athletic enough to hold his own in coverage on short passes.

The former first round pick will play a crucial part in limiting Newton. There is some history between both players, as Beasley had some moments shutting him down on read option plays. The same can be said about Deion Jones. It does have to be noted that Newton was banged up last season. While the former MVP may still be hurt, he can’t possibly play worse than he did in both games last season. The linebackers can’t afford to suffer any lapses against the dynamic quarterback. CBS’ Will Brinson talked about Newton’s wild variance of play. With all the adversity surrounding Carolina, this could be one of those games where he feels the need to put the entire team on his back.

Offensive line faces stern test

For all the jokes about Carolina’s aging defensive line, they still manage to generate tons of pressure. Ron Rivera’s group has the second most sacks in the league. Julius Peppers continues to be an ageless wonder. Re-signing Mario Addison has proven to be a wise decision. There aren’t many terrifying interior tackles quite like Kawann Short. They also like to blitz more than most teams, as Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson both have two sacks this season. Diversifying their blitz designs have proven to be effective as well. Captain Munnerlyn came off a corner blitz to deflect Jameis Winston’s pass, which resulted in an interception.

They don’t have an electrifying young edge rusher, yet harass opposing quarterbacks on a consistent basis. Matt Ryan may need to get the ball out quicker than usual. The offensive line hasn’t necessarily played badly. The recent stretch of controlling bottom-feeding pass rushing groups makes it difficult to assess their overall performance. Wes Schweitzer did have issues against a previously-struggling Muhammad Wilkerson. It may only end up being a minor setback, but Schweitzer’s stiffness was problematic. He is still adapting to his first season as a starter. How he fares against Carolina’s ultra-talented tackle rotation could play a decisive factor in the outcome.

Figuring out McCaffrey

While the Falcons are trying to find a rhythm under Sarkisian, the Panthers face a similar dilemma with their most high-profile new addition. Christian McCaffrey is struggling to find his niche. In a draft class filled with game-breaking talent at running back, the number eight overall pick looks ordinary compared to them. Fanrag’s Kyle Posey wrote an excellent piece about his struggles. It’s clear that Shula is doing everything possible to get McCaffrey involved. They are designing plays strictly for him. These plays feel forced and predictable rather than well-constructed and creative.

With McCaffrey’s inability to make defenders miss in the open field, it drastically limits the chances of creating big plays with him. The results have been even worse on the ground. While things haven’t gone accordingly, Shula could be devising an entirely different game plan. Nobody knows how influential (or detrimental) Benjamin was to the offense. Could his exit mean more opportunities for McCaffrey to line up on the outside or in the slot? Time will tell. Quinn will need to make sure his defense is well-organized. Whether it’s Jones or Keanu Neal, someone will need to cover McCaffrey in man coverage. They can’t afford to let the rookie back go James White on them.