The Falcons defense is bad. At times, comically bad. The Cardinals game notwithstanding, this banged-up defense has struggled to contain any offense the entire year. That defense is getting a huge break this weekend, with the Panthers set to rest Cam Newton for the rest of the season. This is a huge deal that will move the needle considerably in this matchup.
Note: Assessments based on PFF ratings.
In the trenches
The Falcons defensive line is an area of considerable concern. Grady Jarrett is a beast and worthy of a big extension this offseason. Jack Crawford has been a good interior pass rusher for the team as well. Deadrin Senat has played decently in his rookie year. Past these guys, though, things get dicey.
Vic Beasley has been better lately but has had a very poor season overall. Takkarist McKinley has also shown flashes of his pass rush skills, but he’s been woefully inconsistent. Brooks Reed has been good against the run but offers little else. Bruce Irvin has been mostly quiet as well. Surprisingly, Steven Means is one of our better-rated defenders in the trenches. There are some good players here, but this is a mostly disappointing line.
The Panthers suffered several injuries on their offensive line but have managed it fairly well. Marshall Newhouse has played decently at left tackle, while right tackle Taylor Moton is arguably the best offensive lineman in this unit for 2018. Center Ryan Kalil is on the backside of his career, but is still a quality veteran. Left guard Trai Turner is a quality starter even if he’s having a bit of a down year. Finally, Greg Van Roten is playing OK, but could be the guy that the Falcons target for interior penetration.
This is a matchup of sadness. Jarrett and Crawford could be the key here. If they can take advantage of Van Roten, they could swing this matchup. As it is, it’s too close to call.
The skill positions
On the outside, the Falcons have struggled. Robert Alford is having one of his worst seasons ever. Desmond Trufant started the year poorly but has improved a good bit in recent weeks. Rookie Isaiah Oliver and Brian Poole both grade out as average, which actually puts them a notch above Alford. On the back end, Damontae Kazee has been very good at free safety, netting six interceptions on the season. Sharrod Neasman is playing OK, but the loss of Keanu Neal certainly hurts here.
At linebacker, Deion Jones has been getting his legs back, but he’s already the best linebacker on the field. De’vondre Campbell has had a rough year, undoubtedly due to the loss of Jones early on. Rookie Foyesade Oluokun started off the year poorly, but has played well in recent weeks, looking more and more like a starter. This unit is missing some key guys, but players like Trufant and Alford have not played well either. There’s some quality here, but a ton of frustration too.
The Panthers will be missing Cam Newton, whose hurt shoulder is finally going to get some rest. Taylor Heinicke could surprise — and going against the Falcons will help — but he’s a considerable step down from Newton. Running back and receiver Christian McCaffrey is a dangerous weapon out of the backfield. Receivers Curtis Samuel and rookie D.J. Moore are both playing well, but neither is a dominant force. Rookie tight end Ian Thomas has a ton of promise, but is not playing well in his first year. This team could really use a healthy Greg Olsen. The Panthers have several good weapons on this offense, but the lack of Cam Newton is crucial here.
Normally, the Falcons would not get much consideration here, but this offense is a complete unknown without Cam under center. Due to that injury and how it impacts all the other weapons for the Panthers, Atlanta gets an ever-so slight-nod here.
Let’s be clear: If Cam were healthy and playing, this matchup would easily go to the Panthers, no matter how they’ve played as of late. Without Cam, this offense will be missing the key cog that makes it all work. That is enough to give the Falcons an edge, even if it’s a comically small one.