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Falcons defense vs. Panthers offense: Who wins this matchup?

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Can Atlanta slow down Christian McCaffrey?

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

Had we pondered this question just a few weeks ago, fans would be laughing at the prospect of stopping any offense, much less one led by a legitimate MVP candidate in Christian McCaffrey. Yet, the Falcons defense showed us something different when they sacked Drew Brees 6 times.

Will that defense show up in Carolina? Let’s take a look at the matchups.

In the trenches

The Falcons’ six-sack breakout against the Saints was led by the amazing Grady Jarrett, who is legitimately one of the best defensive tackles in the league. Adrian Clayborn has been playing better as of late and Tyeler Davison has been a rock against the run. Takk McKinley has been generating pressure, even if the sack numbers aren’t showing it. This is not a great defensive line, but they did show something against the Saints. If they can repeat that performance, we may finally have something to talk about. But I will believe it when I see it.

The Panthers feature an offensive line that has some issues. Dennis Daley has been decent at left tackle as a rookie and Taylor Moton is not too bad at right tackle. Yet, Atlanta has been winning in the interior lately and that’s where the Panthers have some weakness. The normally good Matt Paradis is having a down year while Greg Van Roten and Trai Turner are playing slightly better, but have not been playing at their normal levels. In total, this is a decent unit, but it has weaknesses the Falcons could exploit.

While I’m happy with what the Falcons did last week, this is still not a favorable matchup for the Falcons. I’m hoping they’ve turned the corner, but I’m going to need more than one game to buy in. Panthers get the nod here.

Advantage: Panthers

The skill positions

The Falcons secondary also had one of their better games against the Saints. This is a unit that has struggled all year, so we’ll see if that trend holds up. Isaiah Oliver has been improving and is already quite good at stopping the run. Kendall Sheffield is looking better with each game he plays. Safeties Ricardo Allen and Damontae Kazee looked better as well, but both have had rough seasons before the Saints game. At linebacker, Deion Jones is still playing really well overall, even if not at his normally high standards. De’Vondre Campbell had a good game against the Saints, but it doesn’t make up for his poor season overall. Foye Oluokun had a very good game against the Saints and deserves more snaps. This unit is capable of good play as they showed on Sunday. We just need to see it more than once in a blue moon.

The Panthers are a different offense without Cam Newton. While Kyle Allen has done fairly well in his second season, he’s nowhere near the offensive threat that a healthy Cam is. Receivers D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel are becoming a nice one-two threat at receiver and Greg Olsen can still make important catches in traffic, but the real star of the offense now is Christian McCaffrey, who is having an MVP-caliber season. He’s a threat as a runner and a receiver and is the game changer for this offense now. He’s going to be a problem.

Moore, Olsen and Samuel are decent receiving options, but aren’t top-flight at their positions. McCaffrey is. He’s the difference maker here and it will take nothing less than an All-Star effort from Atlanta’s linebackers to slow him down. The edge has to go to Carolina since they are playing at home.

Advantage: Panthers

Overall

That Saints game makes me want to believe in this defense. Putting Raheem Morris back in charge of the secondary has seemingly made a huge difference, but it was just one game. The Panthers are a quality team and if Atlanta wants us to believe in this defense, they have to repeat what they did in New Orleans. Until they do, it will remain an aberration in a season where they are one of the worst defensive units in the league. I hope they prove us wrong.

Advantage: Panthers