The Carolina Panthers loom. This is a physical football team that can’t seem to figure out whether it’s a quality squad or a weak one capable of strong performances...which sounds a little like the Falcons! A win here will help clarify the season a bit for these teams, and I’d love it if Atlanta could pull this one off.
Here’s one reason to feel good about the matchup ahead, and one reason to feel less than stellar.
One reason to feel confident: Weirdly, stopping the run
The Falcons’ run defense is coming off their best performance, statistically, in years. They held the Jets to under two yards per carry, thanks to the addition of Ahtyba Rubin, better discipline, and a little bit of weakness for the New York ground game. Thankfully, the Falcons are facing an even weaker opponent this week.
Make no mistake: You have to worry about Cam Newton, who is always difficult to contain, and it’ll be incumbent on Vic Beasley, De’Vondre Campbell and Deion Jones to keep an eye on him. The actual running backs on this offense have done very little to this point, with Christian McCaffrey struggling to get free and Jonathan Stewart looking a bit slower. Both of them are also running behind an offensive line that has suddenly lost the ability to run block whatsoever, which bodes well for this Atlanta defense.
The Falcons have always had the talent, athleticism and physicality necessary to be a decent run defense. Against the Panthers, they should look better than that.
One reason to be nervous: That Carolina defense
The Falcons have faced top tier defenses a handful of times this season, and things have not gone well for the offense in any of them. Week one saw the team scuffle a bit in a win over the Bears, the Bills and Dolphins games were both losses keyed by lousy offensive performances, and man, the Patriots held them to seven points. I’m wary of what Carolina can do on that side of the ball.
That all starts with the front seven, which is legitimately dangerous. Luke Kuechly is the league’s best middle linebacker, and their line is capable of generating pressure and pumping the brakes on even good ground attacks, meaning the Falcons are going to be fighting for every yard. I anticipate a few stalled drives, unfortunately, and that could be enough to swing the balance in this game.
Another matchup to watch will be cornerback James Bradberry against Julio Jones. The Panthers almost certainly drafted Bradberry with stopping the likes of Julio Jones and Mike Evans in mind, and the rangy cornerback has played very well this year. If Bradberry is up to the task of largely holding Julio in check, it will make life easier for everyone else on the Carolina defense, and they’ll feel more confident dialing up pressure to get after Matt Ryan.