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Panthers vs. Falcons: Fascinating Four for Week 17

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Will the Falcons prevail in a do-or-die situation?

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

It all comes down to one game.

Following an emotional loss to New Orleans, the Falcons must direct their attention to another division rival. A play-in game against Carolina puts Dan Quinn’s squad in a unique spot. They will get to play in the cozy confines of their home stadium. Considering all the confusion inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium should provide a welcoming setting. If fans can sound even half as loud as the boisterous New Orleans’ crowd did last week, the Falcons should benefit from it.

The young, slowly improving defense is coming off a terrific performance. Containing Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram gives them momentum heading into a matchup against Carolina’s rejuvenated ground game. For all their defensive success, it went to waste in a bizarre offensive showing. Not scoring at the one-yard line on two occasions is unacceptable. Between Devonta Freeman’s ball security and the poor personnel alignment, they can’t afford another to fall apart in the red zone again. The Panthers are as resolute as it gets on both sides of the ball. It will take everything for the Falcons to secure a playoff spot.

Production outside of Julio Jones

The past two games have been somewhat lopsided for the passing game. It’s difficult to gauge what is plaguing a once-explosive aerial attack. Matt Ryan is coming off one his better games of the season. It was imperative for him to get back on track, especially when throwing to Jones. They struggled to connect over the prior three games, as Ryan’s 31.4 passer rating indicated. Ryan and Julio were on point at every level last Sunday. As encouraging as that may sound, the Falcons are far more dangerous when other receiving options are making explosive plays. Everyone saw what a one-dimensional passing game looked like in 2015.

Ryan’s supporting cast needs to step up. While Steve Sarkisian receives criticism for not scheming players open, these players need to win their individual matchups. Mohamed Sanu has been quiet in recent weeks. After playing extremely well against New Orleans three weeks ago, the versatile wide receiver isn’t making much of an impact at the moment. Since his costly drop in the same game previously mentioned, Austin Hooper’s usage has dipped in the passing game. Some trust may have been lost between Ryan and Hooper.

Taylor Gabriel continues to be a peripheral figure in the offense. It should be noted that Ryan tried to get him more involved last Sunday. Gabriel caught one pass on four targets, as the one catch occurred on a screen. Everyone knows that Kyle Shanahan designed plays for him to flourish in the open field. That didn’t prevent him from beating opposing cornerbacks. He still managed to make outstanding individual plays such as embarrassing Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl. The dynamic weapon simply isn’t creating enough separation to receive more targets.

Although Sarkisian will look to stay balanced, it seems likely that they will be more pass-oriented. Trying to establish a running game against Carolina’s stout front seven usually doesn’t end well. That leads to teams throwing the ball more often to exploit their average secondary. Past history suggests Jones will have another big game. Divisional games tend to bring the best out of him.

It’s still vital for other players to step up. Sanu, Gabriel, and Hooper seem to be the most likely candidates. Justin Hardy is always capable of popping up with a few big catches on third down. Based on the last two weeks, Sarkisian is trying to get both running backs more involved in the passing game. Freeman led the team in receiving yards against Tampa Bay. For the first time since Week 4, Tevin Coleman caught four passes in a game. A well-timed wheel route ended up being their only touchdown against New Orleans. There is optimism that both running backs will be utilized in the passing game. They will be needed against Carolina’s heavy blitzing methods.

Deion Jones’ rise to greatness

The second-year linebacker hasn’t stopped playing at a high level following his sensational performance against New Orleans. A stat line of 13 tackles, three tackles for a loss, two passes defensed, and one game-sealing interception essentially saved the Falcons’ season. He snuffed out several short passes against Tampa Bay. In last Sunday’s rematch, Jones rose to the occasion once again. He recorded ten tackles, two tackles for a loss, one pass defensed, and a traditional interception against Drew Brees. It was the type of game that made everyone realize what he brings to the table as a three-down linebacker.

Jones played a major role in neutralizing the Saints’ electrifying running back duo. His speed to make plays sideline to sideline was on full display. Look at him chase down Kamara for a three-yard gain. When left clean, the explosive linebacker can shoot through gaps in a flash. By playing with more physicality, he is finishing plays more often. Smashing into Ingram and driving him upfield showed a newfound edge to his game. Handling coverage responsibilities proved to be no issue either. Jones embraced covering Kamara on the outside. On a big third down stop, he ran step for step with the future offensive rookie of the year. It forced Brees to look elsewhere and make a difficult throw on the move. These types of plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet deserve recognition.

Jones will be asked to fulfill similar tasks against Carolina. Following Christian McCaffrey should present a worthy challenge. From matching up with him in split wide formations to following him out of the backfield, the rising star is going to play a crucial role in slowing him down. Expect to see him at the forefront of trying to stop Carolina’s multidimensional ground game as well. Carolina ran over 200 yards in the first meeting. Cam Newton caught Quinn’s defense slipping on multiple occasions. With Mike Shula constantly using deception and misdirection to fool opposing defenses, the front seven must stay composed. That starts with Jones making the right decisions and nullifying any big play possibilities.

Limiting Carolina’s pass rush

When it comes to getting production from numerous players, the Panthers do it better than anybody else. They manage to exceed expectations with their aging defensive linemen on a yearly basis. For them to have 49 sacks on the season (only behind Jacksonville and Pittsburgh) is remarkable. Their front four doesn’t look intimidating on paper. They don’t have an explosive edge rusher entering their prime. It’s a group filled with veterans that know how to play with each other. Julius Peppers isn’t slowing down, while Mario Addison continues to evolve into a true game wrecker. Combine two savvy pass rushers with Kawann Short and chaos will ensue.

What makes Carolina’s pass rush so dangerous is they incorporate different facets to it. According to ESPN’s NFL Matchup, Carolina blitzes a whopping 44.1 percent of the time. That is tied with Gregg Williams’ madman approach in Cleveland, yet both teams couldn’t be heading in more opposite directions. Using exotic double A-Gap blitzes with Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly causes quarterbacks to panic. If they want to get even more creative, defensive backs like Captain Munnerlyn will rush off the blindside. The diversity of blitzing plays an integral part in their success. They haven’t missed a beat following Sean McDermott’s move to Buffalo. It will take more than simply blocking the man in front of them for the Falcons to succeed. The return of Andy Levitre should help the offensive line regain their cohesiveness. His absence was felt against New Orleans’ endless stunts.

Slim margin for error

Due to the Falcons making a habit of beating themselves, it’s something that must be acknowledged going into this pivotal game. They are currently tied for 24th in turnover margin at minus five. To be aligned with the lowly New York Giants in any statistical category is never a good sign. It’s remarkable that a potential playoff team can succeed with such a poor turnover ratio. Let’s not forget that the Falcons are tied with San Francisco for the most drops in the league as well. It has contributed to Ryan’s unfortunate interception luck. Drops played a crucial part in the first meeting against Carolina, as Jones dropped a wide-open touchdown.

While Atlanta commits weekly self-inflicted mistakes, Carolina has made teams suffer for their blunders. They have forced ten turnovers in the last three games. That includes picking off Aaron Rodgers three times and forcing Case Keenum into playing one of his worst games of the season. After serving a one game suspension, Thomas Davis will be making his return at an opportune time. The star linebacker is still playing at an extremely high level. It’s going to be a daunting challenge for the entire offense. Excluding victories over Green Bay and Seattle, the inconsistent group has failed to produce in marquee matchups. If this is a playoff-worthy team, they have to start winning the turnover battle. Playing turnover free football and capitalizing on Newton’s erratic decision making will be essential.