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Falcons vs. Panthers: How the game will be won or lost

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Can the Falcons capitalize on another favorable matchup?

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

How much of a difference one year makes in the NFL.

After last year’s regular season finale had major playoff implications, the Falcons and Panthers face off in a game without any high stakes. Carolina is still technically in the playoff picture, yet they’re aware that their playoff aspirations are essentially over. A six-game losing streak has left them a state of despair. With Ron Rivera firmly on the hot seat and unable to find solutions, there is no telling how Carolina performs on Sunday. They did put in a valiant effort against the best team in the NFC last Monday night. It wasn’t enough in the end as their franchise quarterback continued to play like a diminished version of himself.

The Falcons have a great opportunity to win their second road game of the season. While Carolina’s defense looks much-improved since Rivera took over play-calling duties, it doesn’t have the personnel to take over games. Matt Ryan has found plenty of success against their defense over the past few seasons. Whether it consists of spreading the ball around or feeding Julio Jones as much as possible, the former MVP rarely disappoints in this matchup. That should bode well for them in trying to sweep their division rival for the second time in the last three years.

Remaining aggressive against a wounded opponent

Regardless of Carolina’s quarterback change, the Falcons’ newfound aggressive defensive approach should remain instilled. They have been successful in utilizing various blitzes and twists to generate pressure over the past two games. After two of their four sacks against Green Bay resulted from blitzing, they produced three of their seven sacks versus Arizona off pure blitzes. De’Vondre Campbell and Brian Poole were instrumental in how they rattled Josh Rosen. From Campbell running twists with Bruce Irvin to Poole blitzing from the weak side, the Falcons were ruthless in getting after the helpless rookie quarterback. They racked up seven sacks, nine hits, and 17 hurries in total.

Dan Quinn and Marquand Manuel have received major criticism for their lack of creativity. Instead of trying to help an underwhelming pass rush, they opted to drop eight into coverage to provide support for a porous secondary. It only ended up giving opposing quarterbacks more time to survey the field and find an open window downfield. That strategy hasn’t been used much since their embarrassing loss to New Orleans. Quinn prefers not to call many blitzes, as his scheme is predicated on generating pressure with a four-man rush and preventing big plays. Neither of those objectives have been met this season. It forced Quinn to alter his scheme towards giving the personnel a better chance to prevent offenses from torching them.

It’ll be interesting to see how often they blitz another inexperienced quarterback. Taylor Heinicke will be replacing Cam Newton. This isn’t a surprising move, considering all of the issues surrounding the former MVP. Newton’s well-documented shoulder problems has led to a combination of wildly inaccurate throws, rash decision making, and an inability to push the ball downfield. The offense is severely limited with their ailing quarterback unable to play at an expected high level. By protecting the face of the franchise, Rivera has called upon Heinicke to salvage a slumping offense. It will be difficult for him, given that Carolina lacks consistent playmakers outside of Christian McCaffrey. This is the type of matchup where you’d like to see the Falcons be as ruthless as they were last week. No team is worse on third and ten (or more) than Carolina. Putting Heinicke in those scenarios will go a long way in securing a road victory.

Deion Jones vs. Christian McCaffrey

One of the best things about the NFC South is watching the most dynamic middle linebacker in the NFL chase around two of the most dynamic running backs in the league. Deion Jones was immense in helping the Falcons get back to the playoffs last season. In three of their last four games of the season, they faced New Orleans and Carolina. Squaring off against multi-dimensional playmakers like Alvin Kamara and McCaffrey in must-win games is never ideal. With Jones at the heart of their defense, both running backs were largely contained. His performances in those games made everyone recognize him as a top-tier middle linebacker.

Not being able to see him match up against Kamara was one of the most disappointing aspects about his serious foot injury. It rendered a depleted defense hopeless when trying to stop the Saints’ potent offense. Despite losing narrowly in Week 2, McCaffrey found acres of space against them at will. The terrific running back caught a whopping 14 passes for 102 yards. With Jones sidelined and threat of Newton scrambling, Quinn was forced to play zone for the majority of the game. His traditional Cover 3 setup makes them vulnerable against proper pass-catching backs. Norv Turner didn’t hesitate to target that specific weakness. Based on their current quarterback situation, he will be relying on McCaffrey even more for the remainder of the season.

What makes facing McCaffrey slightly more challenging than Kamara is how Carolina uses him. There isn’t a second option in Carolina’s backfield. McCaffrey is their all-purpose ironman who doesn’t leave the field. According to Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson, the former first round pick hasn’t missed a snap in the last five weeks. For a running back to play that much in today’s era is ludicrous. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him touch the ball 30 times. How those touches materialize will be on the Falcons. Quinn recently talked about the importance of switching between man and zone. With Jones healthy and Newton injured, they will have more freedom to be flexible with their coverage looks. How Jones stays in front of McCaffrey and tackles in the open field will ultimately decide if the Falcons’ defense can be dominant for the second consecutive week.

Defensive rookie progression

Quinn’s intention of using young players more frequently is starting to become evident. The necessary steps are being taken to see who can emerge into a potential starter for 2019. Isaiah Oliver received a slight uptick in playing time last week. What made this decision more significant was how the coaching staff used Oliver. He didn’t only play when the Falcons were comfortably ahead. The second round pick played during the first half on multiple drives. For him to play in Robert Alford’s position on the left in a competitive setting is vital for his development. Despite being rarely targeted last week, Oliver is getting the experience he needs. Expect him to be tested more often in the final two games, as his snap count should continue to increase.

Another encouraging step in Atlanta’s youth movement was Deadrin Senat receiving 25 snaps. The promising defensive tackle has been misused at times this season. From being bizarrely benched against New Orleans to rarely being used in recent weeks, Senat is finally getting a fair opportunity to prove himself. Not playing Terrell McClain, who has failed to make an impact, gives the Falcons a chance to see if the third round pick can be a long-term fit in Quinn’s defensive line rotation.

While two higher-round picks look to find their niche, the Falcons’ 2018 sixth round pick is showing signs of being their biggest defensive coup. Foye Oluokun has established himself as their third linebacker. Between playing alongside Jones and Campbell in base to occasionally lining up with Jones in nickel, the rookie linebacker has made tremendous strides in his overall development. His ability to play physical and make plays near the line of scrimmage has stood out, along with his impressive speed. What the coaching staff envisioned Duke Riley to be is what Oluokun has started to become as a capable three-down linebacker.

Fringe players look to make their mark

As young players with clearer futures receive ample opportunities, there are other players needing to make a genuine impact in order to be considered as a potential contributor for 2019. These players aren’t being afforded the same luxury as some high-round picks or players the front office traded for.

Steven Means has elevated his game over the past two weeks. After failing to produce earlier in the season, the unheralded defensive lineman is starting to showcase his capabilities. By replacing Derrick Shelby in Quinn’s base package, Means is doing more than setting the edge. He is using his explosive burst to make plays in the backfield. Whether it’s closing down potential running lanes or generating pressure inside, he has made a great impression over the past two weeks. After being considered as an afterthought, Means can play his way into a spot in next year’s rotation with his power and versatility.

While veterans like Means try to earn a roster spot for next season, there are less-heralded younger players that must make a positive impression. Brian Hill will get his long-awaited opportunity on Sunday. With Tevin Coleman unable to handle a full workload, the former fifth-round pick can expect to receive a decent amount of carries. Hill isn’t the only player from the 2017 draft needing to show something. Eric Saubert hasn’t exactly flourished so far in his young career. Between not being a particularly good blocker and failing to contribute in the passing game, the young tight end must make an impact in some capacity. Both players have been used sporadically at fullback. That could be another route for Hill and Saubert to prove their worth in an ultra-talented offense.