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What will the Falcons defense look like against the Carolina Panthers?

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It’s this week’s biggest question mark for Atlanta, and they have more than one.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Set aside Steve Sarkisian. Set aside Matt Ryan. The Falcons’ offense may very well scuffle against a tough Carolina front seven, but their task this week is still easier than it was against the Eagles, and there were so many hilariously bad things about their performance in Week 1 that I’m anticipating a level of improvement. It’s also clear based on their production against Carolina a year ago that this probably won’t be a high-scoring game for the offense, which puts extra pressure on a banged up defense to do the job. The Falcons scored just 39 points in two games against the Panthers last year.

The big question facing the Falcons has to do with the defense, in other words.

Specifically, we want to know how the Falcons defense is going to fare. This year’s version is lacking Dontari Poe and, as of recently, both Keanu Neal and Deion Jones. To figure out how the Falcons might fare at keeping those pesky Panthers in check, let’s look at how they did in 2017 when they were at full strength.

December 31, 2017

This was a brutal game for Carolina, who managed just 10 points. Cam Newton completed 14/34 passes for 180 yards, a single touchdown and three interceptions, which went to Neal, Ricardo Allen and Robert Alford. The team’s only success came on the ground, where Cam Newton ran for 59 yards on 11 carries. The Falcons absolutely locked down Cameron Artis-Payne and Christian McCaffrey, who combined for 30 yards on 11 carries.

Offensively, the Falcons scored only five field goals and a touchdown, but 22 points might still be enough to beat this Panthers offense. Remember, they just managed 16 points against the Cowboys.

November 5, 2017

The Falcons lost this one, as the offense managed just 17 points. They at least scored two touchdowns this time out, though.

The defense only allowed 20 points and held Cam Newton to 13/24 for 137 yards, continuing a trend of holding the Carolina QB to brutally low passing totals. The big difference in this one was that Atlanta couldn’t stop the Panthers on the ground at all, with Newton and McCaffrey combining for 142 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. It was actually a blessing when Jonathan Stewart got the ball.

Even more consequential, given how close this 20-17 game ended up being, was the complete lack of turnovers. The Falcons got a ton at the end of the 2017 season, but zero here.

What should we expect this time?

What makes Carolina a tough matchup is their ability to run the football. Newton always manages to be one of the team’s major weapons, but we saw McCaffrey play pretty well in the first matchup last year despite Keanu Neal and Deion Jones being on the field and leading the team in tackles. Switch over to Duke Riley and Damontae Kazee and things seemingly get dicier.

And the run defense is still the primary concern. Even without Neal, the Falcons have one of the better secondaries in the NFC, and the Panthers are breaking in rookie D.J. Moore and won’t have Greg Olsen to work with. Newton has only really had success in one game against the Falcons through the air, and unless he’s able to exploit connections to McCaffrey, I’d expect that to continue here.

We saw two very different performances a year ago with more or less the same cast of players, which makes projecting this particularly difficult. We simply don’t know how Riley is going to fare in the middle, and the limited look we got at Kazee last week suggests that he’s a fine defender but that an Allen/Kazee duo is a significant downgrade in run defense from Allen/Neal. The most important thing Atlanta can do is to prevent any huge gains that could break the game open for Carolina, and turn all that talk about creating more turnovers into reality to give their offense more chances to work. In what’s likely to be a close game, even one massive Christian McCaffrey run could swing this thing.

In terms of what we should actually expect, I’d say a better performance from Carolina’s offense than we saw in either of the last two times these two teams met. I could see Newton actually throwing for 200 yards and I think 100+ rushing yards for the team are a virtual lock in this one. The Falcons have a prime opportunity to make all those yards empty ones if they can run over this injured Carolina offensive line and take advantage of the lack of quality, proven pass catchers on the Panthers roster, but let’s just say I hope the offense is up to the task of scoring 20-plus in this one.