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

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Can the Falcons rebound from another disappointing loss in Philadelphia and move forward without multiple defensive stars?

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

After waiting until November to play their first divisional game last season, the Falcons get to jump right into the fray this season. An early season matchup against Carolina presents another formidable challenge for them. The timing isn’t necessarily ideal for either team, as several key players will be sidelined. It primarily involves Carolina’s new-look offense under Norv Turner against Dan Quinn’s rising defense. There were high expectations for both units going into this year. Alterations will now be required after one week of action.

The pressure for change offensively intensified following last Thursday’s defeat. Another underwhelming, mystifying performance reinserts Steve Sarkisian’s place on the hot seat. To only go one for five in the red zone is a deplorable conversion rate. Ironically, they had the same amount of success against Carolina in their last meeting. Cam Newton’s woeful performance bailed them out of what was another disastrous showing in the red zone.

It’s highly unlikely that the former MVP completes 14 out of 34 passes and throws three interceptions again, especially with two major figures out indefinitely on the Falcons’ defense. It’s also worth noting that Carolina is in rough shape.

Adjusting to life without Keanu Neal and Deion Jones

There were far bigger consequences following the Falcons’ second consecutive disappointing loss to the Eagles. Besides losing to a backup quarterback, they lost two of their most talented defensive players. Deion Jones and Keanu Neal must be considered up there with Grady Jarrett as their most valuable defensive player. Front offices use Jones as the prime example when searching for their future ideal middle linebacker. His transcendence from being wildly inconsistent to a league-wide prototype for the position has been remarkable. While Jones covers so much ground and makes incredible instinctual plays, Neal is the enforcer that every great defense needs. His ability to play in the box as an extra linebacker gives the Falcons’ undersized front seven much-needed support.

Losing both players is a significant blow for a defense looking to establish themselves as a top ten unit. It’s practically impossible to replace both players. As impressive as Damonate Kazee has looked, he is far from a finished product alongside Ricardo Allen, who will now have to adapt to a new role. It could be a difficult transition for a player that is accustomed to covering tons of space rather than lining up near the line of scrimmage. Facing one of the most unpredictable offenses won’t help matters either.

Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey made Dallas look silly at times behind their spread read-option schemes. Trying to cover McCaffrey could be extremely problematic as well. According to Scott Barrett, Jones was in coverage on 39 running back targets last season. Jones and Neal combined to be the primary defender on a whopping 47 percent of running back targets. Effectively replacing that production is going to be a tall order.

It’s always difficult to stay disciplined against the Panthers with Newton being a constant threat with the ball in his hands. How good defenses make up for being out of position is by making open field tackles. Losing two reliable open field tacklers against an extraordinary quarterback like Newton and elusive machine like McCaffrey may prove to be too overwhelming for Quinn’s undermanned defense. Duke Riley will need to elevate his game, as the former third round pick struggled to finish in space when given playing time last season.

Moving on from the one-dimensional attack

For an offense that preaches about the importance of being balanced, there was nothing balanced about the Falcons’ approach last Thursday. Ryan was at the forefront of their issues by staring down receivers and throwing wildly inaccurate passes. A good majority of those throws were in the direction of Julio Jones. The superstar wide receiver was targeted 19 times against the Eagles. It was shocking to see him receive more targets than every other skill position player combined. Philadelphia quickly capitalized on Ryan’s tendency, as Ronald Darby broke up two passes on third down by telegraphing both throws.

There were opportunities to get Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley involved. Both players were largely overlooked, as Sanu averaged less than five yards per reception and Ridley failed to catch a pass in his debut. To not effectively use either receiver in a big game should be viewed as a major letdown. The same applies to Tevin Coleman only receiving two targets. While Jones is more than capable of taking over games, the offense suffers on most occasions when there is an over insistence on getting him the ball.

It’s on Ryan and Sarkisian to get other weapons involved. Carolina’s zone defense usually provides big play opportunities. Not having to face stalwart linebacker Thomas Davis should allow them to find more success in getting both running backs more involved. It will be essential for Ryan to show much better pocket awareness and touch on his throws. Improvements in both areas are necessary for the offense to play up to their capabilities, which can only help them solve their latest conundrum.

The never-ending red zone struggle

“Our eight months of work will not be decided by one game” is what Quinn stated repeatedly after last Thursday night’s defeat. The coaching staff knows this has been a lingering problem since Kyle Shanahan’s departure. Easy access touchdowns have been far less frequent under Sarkisian.

Whether he’s not using misdirection and deception enough to overly depending on Jones in the red zone, positive drives are being wasted on a consistent basis. There is already sufficient pressure on Ryan to make tight window throws against the league’s top defenses. While the former MVP needs to play drastically better on Sunday, Sarkisian’s inability to utilize bunch formations and rub route concepts has played a major role in a once-terrifying offense becoming the most disappointing unit in the league.

Another red zone issue involves inconsistent pass protection. Fletcher Cox annihilated their interior line, which included a huge hit on third down during the final drive. Andy Levitre and Alex Mack were overmatched when asked to individually block him. Kawann Short is capable of wrecking games with his massive frame and violent hands.

As the interior line struggled, Ryan Schraeder had one of the worst games of his career. The normally reliable right tackle allowed nine pressures against the Eagles per Pro Football Focus. It’s an alarming stat based on Schraeder only allowing 20 pressures in total last season. Philadelphia’s pass rush can terrorize any offensive line, so this may end up being an anomaly for Schraeder. His play along with the entire offensive line still needs to be monitored during this quest of finding sustainable red zone success.

Pass rushing opportunity

Besides Sarkisian’s play calling, the biggest question going into the season was how the Falcons were going to fare up front defensively. Replacing Adrian Clayborn and Dontari Poe without making any major signings raised some concern about how their ability to generate pressure with a four-man rush. Those worries became a reality against the Eagles’ terrific offensive line. Despite recording two sacks, the defensive line didn’t make Nick Foles panic all that often. Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley were kept quiet for the majority of the game. Without Clayborn’s presence, the lack of explosiveness on the interior was evident as well.

Could the Falcons benefit from signing a veteran? Although Steven Means was recently added, this question will continue to be stressed if more pressure isn’t generated. A 27-year-old edge rusher with two career sacks probably won’t be the answer. A short-term solution might be facing a decimated offensive line.

Carolina is facing a dilemma on the right side of their offensive line. Daryl Williams was recently placed on injured reverse, while Trai Turner remains in concussion protocol. That should give Beasley a confidence booster in trying to get back to his game-wrecking ways. His performance against Philadelphia was another indication that he disappears against top-tier right tackles like Lane Johnson. Time will tell if Beasley can ever truly evolve. For now, he must capitalize in a favorable matchup along with the rest of the defensive line.