No need to sugarcoat. This is absolutely a must-win situation for the Atlanta Falcons. After a rough season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Falcons have their home opener against a division rival in the Panthers. Both sides are dealing with significant injuries to where neither team can say they have an upper advantage, but nonetheless, two teams in the midst of an Interstate-85 rivalry meet on Sunday. Here are three in-game encounters that will shape the outcome.
Falcons Defensive Line vs. Panthers Offensive Line
Entering this contest, the Panthers are a walking medical ward on the offensive line with three starters (Matt Kalil, Trai Turner, Daryl Williams) all being declared out for this contest. The only lineman that will be in place on Sunday at his original position will be center Ryan Kalil. So there is plenty of adjustment taking place on the offensive line for Carolina and it is a definite focal point.
The Falcons defensive line is relatively healthy going forward and the interior of Grady Jarrett, Jack Crawford, and Deadrin Senat played very well in the season opener. The edge rushers however were not quite to the level that was expected but, to their credit, a bookend tackle tandem of Jason Peters and Lane Johnson will be tough to rush against on any day. Now, the young, athletic duo of Vic Beasley Jr. and Takk McKinley must instill their will against the depleted offensive line and bottle up Carolina quarterback Cam Newton. The athleticism is there as is a golden opportunity against a weakened offensive line.
Falcons WR Calvin Ridley vs. Panthers Secondary
In his professional debut, rookie wideout Calvin Ridley garnered just two targets and walked away with zero catches. Not the most spectacular of openers but at the end of the day, he is a rookie. The strength of the Panthers defense is on the front end, that is quite known. The secondary may not be placed in a class of the elite but they are an average group of defenders at worst.
Ridley will see the likes of James Bradberry, Donte Jackson, and Captain Munnerlyn throughout the game and the rookie is talented enough to hold his own against them. Last week against Dallas, the Panthers allowed Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott to complete 12-of-14 passes for 101 yards in all zones between the line-of-scrimmage and 10 yards. Ridley’s most effective routes ran during the 2017 season at Alabama were digs, slants, and crossing routes. The Falcons are looking to get Ridley more involved in week two after a quiet opening week. Ridley may have an opportunity to work the short passing game for the Falcons in this one with all eyes wandering on the presence of Juilo Jones.
Falcons Linebackers vs. Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey
McCaffrey is a Swiss-Army knife for the Panthers offense and will be utilized in a variety of ways. In the pass catching department, McCaffrey has been effective with wheel routes, flat routes, hook routes, angle routes, so on and so forth. Against Dallas, McCaffrey totaled 16 touches for 95 yards which shows an emphasis on putting the ball in the hands of the second-year running back out of Stanford.
As we all know, the Falcons defense will be without star linebacker Deion Jones, who would be the perfect remnant to McCaffrey’s usage. So it will be on the agendas of linebackers De’Vondre Campbell and Duke Riley to corral McCaffrey. He will get his touches but those will have to be limited, as taking his big play ability away from the Panthers offense limits them as a whole.