We’ve reached Week 9, and with it, the first divisional game of the season for Atlanta. In a tight NFC South race, the Falcons will need every victory to stay in the hunt for the division title with Carolina and New Orleans both looking formidable. Luckily, Atlanta got a little momentum after a sloppy but triumphant victory over the Jets last weekend.
This is a difficult and very important match-up for the Falcons if they want to keep pace in the NFC South. Let’s take a look at some players to watch during Sunday’s game.
QB Matt Ryan
We saw Ryan have arguably his most poised game of the season against the Jets in Week 8. That’s pretty impressive, seeing as he had all that success in a driving wind and rain storm. The Jets’ defense isn’t an elite unit, but we’ve seen Ryan struggle to complete deep and intermediate passes even against poor defenses thus far in 2017. Ryan finally connected with Julio Jones on a deep ball last week, and started to target TE Austin Hooper more consistently. The offense moved well, and arguably could’ve scored more if not for the botched snaps (which, let’s be honest, we can blame on the weather).
Ryan will need to play another top-shelf game this week against the Panthers, who have one of the NFL’s best defenses. The Falcons will need to be able to hit a variety of passes and emphasize getting the ball out quickly—the Panthers are currently second in the league with 27 sacks. Staying out of third-and-long will be imperative, and Ryan’s accuracy and decision-making on early downs could make a big difference. Ryan hasn’t quite had a “big” game in 2017 yet, let’s hope we see it this week.
EDGEs Takkarist McKinley and Vic Beasley
Getting a consistent pass rush going will be paramount to keeping the Panthers’ offense in check, but these two have an even bigger role in getting after Cam Newton. McKinley will likely be going up against LT Matt Kalil—who has been downright awful at times in 2017. Takk has shown flashes, but we’ll need to see him play a more well-rounded game and get after the QB more regularly. It’s a plus match-up for the rookie—he just needs to take advantage of it.
Meanwhile, the buzz is that Vic Beasley will be getting more work at SAM. In that case, I believe Vic will often be the personal spy to Newton when he’s lined up at LB. Newton is without a doubt the biggest threat on the Panthers’ offense. They lack playmakers at WR and TE, and their running game—outside of Newton—has been abysmal. It would make a lot of sense for the Falcons to dedicate someone to keeping Newton contained, and the athletic Beasley might be just the player to do it. With other solid options at EDGE like Adrian Clayborn and Brooks Reed, it’s possible we could see Beasley play this role against other mobile QBs, too.
TE Austin Hooper
We saw Hooper assume a larger role in the offense against the Jets to some success. He arguably should’ve had two TDs, if not for a probably weather-related drop at the goal line. Hooper is too talented to be an afterthought in this offense, and the Falcons will need him to step up against a Carolina defense that has been somewhat vulnerable to TEs this season. Players like Zach Ertz had a lot of success against the Panthers, and Hooper functions as a very similar target.
The Panthers are excellent at stopping the run and their secondary, outside of Daryl Worley, is pretty stout. Julio is likely to draw the bulk of the coverage, giving plenty of guys one-on-one match-ups. Atlanta will need their other options, like Hooper, to step up in the receiving game if they hope to come away with a win on Sunday. I certainly hope they do so.
LB Deion Jones
Jones has had an up-and-down start to the 2017 season, but has been playing better—particularly against the run—recently. With the Panthers now down WR Kelvin Benjamin, their primary target in the receiving game might be RB/slot receiver Christian McCaffrey. It’s possible the Falcons may try to line up a DB on McCaffrey if schematically possible, but there will still be plenty of times where Jones will be expected to cover the shifty RB.
Jones certainly has the speed to stick with McCaffrey, but he’ll need to play disciplined football to avoid getting sucked in by the option and play-action that the Panthers love to use in the backfield. As Charles McDonald noted in his examination of the Panthers’ offensive tendencies, the Panthers almost always throw the ball to McCaffrey if he’s split out wide. Hopefully, that knowledge will help Jones shut down the rookie in those situations.
Falcons interior DL
Despite the numbers that suggest that the Panthers are not very good at running the football, they will almost certainly try to establish that part of their offense anyway. A week ago, I would’ve been very concerned about the Falcons’ ability to stop a concerted effort at running the ball—but we actually saw an impressive performance by the Falcons’ run defense against the Jets. That is an encouraging sign for a unit that usually held up decently early in the game, but quickly got worn down late.
The addition of DT Ahtyba Rubin to the rotation of Grady Jarrett, Dontari Poe, and Courtney Upshaw has made an immediate impact. Rubin had multiple stops and demonstrated why he has been such a formidable player against the run throughout his career. He’s difficult to move and is capable of taking on double teams. Rubin’s presence on early downs has also allowed Poe and Jarrett to get a little more rest, making them a bit more effective when they see the field. Shutting down the Panthers’ rushing attack early and forcing them to throw the ball is the best recipe for success on Sunday. We’ll see if the defensive line is up to the task.
Who are some players that you’ll be watching during the game? Any match-ups that have you concerned? What are some potential areas that the Falcons can take advantage of on Sunday?