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Falcons vs. Panthers: The most compelling story lines for Sunday

Can Dan Quinn continue to defy the odds in pulling off another road upset against a divisional opponent?

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NFL: DEC 23 Falcons at Panthers Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Despite being in contention for a top five pick, there are reasons to be excited about watching the Atlanta Falcons. A stunning upset over New Orleans reignited what appeared to be a lifeless team. To beat a Super Bowl contender so definitively proved to be a major statement.

It proved that the players are still behind Dan Quinn. It also proved the coaching staff is capable of making effective adjustments. Facing another talented divisional rival on the road will present another exciting challenge. Can the Falcons contain Christian McCaffrey and derail a dangerous Panthers’ team?

Brian Hill in a lead back role

For the second consecutive season, the Falcons will be going to Carolina with Hill as their starting running back. Devonta Freeman suffered a foot sprain, which will keep him sidelined for at least a few games. This injury occurred a few days after Ito Smith was placed on injured reserve. That puts the offense in a precarious position. Kenjon Barner is primarily a special teams specialist. Although Qadree Ollison is an intriguing prospect, there is uncertainty about how he is acclimating to the NFL, given that the team seems reluctant to put him on the field on offense. It leaves Hill as the only back that can handle a full workload.

The former fifth round pick was underwhelming in his first game receiving extended action last week. His hesitancy, lack of mental processing, and poor vision led to many of his runs being unsuccessful. While the blocking certainly could have been better, Hill’s inability to take on defenders left a lot to be desired. Many expected him to be willing to try to run through contact or make defenders miss. Instead, Hill didn’t challenge the Saints’ linebackers or defensive backs at all. Unless Dirk Koetter schemed up a clever toss play and Julio Jones did a tremendous job blocking, Hill failed to produce any notable gains.

Embracing the physical aspects of carrying the load will be necessary against Carolina’s stout front seven. Koetter will need Hill to handle 15 to 20 carries. At the same time, the embattled offensive coordinator must continue to diversify his play calls. He did a great job of keeping New Orleans’ defense on their heels with his various run play designs, particularly on the first drive. Given Quinn’s emphasis on wanting to run the ball more in the second half of the season, it will be vital for Hill and Koetter to bring the best out of each other. The offensive line isn’t likely going to make major strides until Chris Lindstrom returns from injury. How Hill and Koetter complement each other will determine how well they run the ball during Freeman’s absence.

Filling the void of Austin Hooper

It was reported on Wednesday that Hooper is expected to miss a month of action. The MCL sprain he suffered against New Orleans proved to be more severe than expected. It leaves an offense once filled with a variety of playmakers suddenly looking limited. Trading away Mohamed Sanu left them without a reliable, versatile possession receiver. To lose Hooper leaves Matt Ryan searching for new security blankets outside of Jones. As talented as Calvin Ridley is, his role in the offense fluctuates on a weekly basis. Koetter hasn’t figured out how to best utilize him.

There isn’t a player on the roster that can replace Hooper. The star tight end possesses strong hands, high football IQ, and knack for making contested catches. While Luke Stocker has made strides as a run blocker in recent weeks, he isn’t going to be relied upon as a pass catcher. Jaeden Graham should receive more opportunities moving forward. In a preseason filled with few standouts, Graham made his mark as a pass catcher, which helped solidify his place on the roster. His athleticism could give Ryan more confidence to spread the ball around rather than overly rely on his two-star receivers.

The timing of Hooper’s injury certainly isn’t ideal. Carolina’s defense is one of the better units in the league. Between their stellar linebackers to ferocious defensive line, the Falcons face a daunting task trying to contain them. Hooper’s value as a blocker, along with his obvious pass-catching ability, will be missed. Who Ryan decides to throw to more will be fascinating. Russell Gage is starting to receive more targets as the main slot receiver. Someone else will need to step up in order to give Ryan more options. Whether it’s a wide receiver or tight end, they can’t overly depend on Jones and Ridley against a battle-tested defense. Giving Ryan more high-percentage looks off play action could be one of the main solutions in trying to make up for the loss of Hooper.

A potentially revived front four

After nearly producing as many sacks against New Orleans (6) as they did in the first eight games of the season (7), there are new expectations being placed on a massively underachieving defensive line. Can they build on their sensational performance? Generating pressure against one of the best offensive lines in the league should create legitimate optimism about their outlook.

Placing any sort of high expectations on the Falcons’ defense is a dangerous game. They have been inclined to deceive on numerous occasions over the years. That’s why it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see last week’s stunning showing be nothing more than an anomaly.

There are still reasons to be hopeful. With Jeff Ulbrich and Raheem Morris taking over defensive play calling duties, the Falcons are taking more risks. They used more disguises and delayed blitzes to rattle Drew Brees. From dropping eight into coverage to rotating the defensive line around, everything worked in unison against their bitter rival. Grady Jarrett finally received much-needed support from his teammates up front. Playing Adrian Clayborn more off the edge is making a difference. The same can be said about Takkarist McKinley being used more inside. Both versatile players are being utilized in a more effective manner.

Compared to past seasons, the upcoming matchup against Carolina will be vastly different. Not having to chase and bring down Cam Newton is a relief for every defensive lineman in the league. Kyle Allen is an elusive quarterback but tends to get careless when pressure begins to mount. His ball security issues have been problematic since replacing Newton. Not having a stable offensive line isn’t ideal either, especially for an inexperienced quarterback. Promising left tackle Greg Little is expected to return on Sunday. That’ll be a welcoming return for an offensive line struggling to find solutions at left tackle. In a battle of two enigmatic lines, Atlanta’s front must use their speed and athleticism to exploit a sluggish offensive line.

Youth on the outside

With Desmond Trufant currently sidelined, the Falcons’ youth movement at cornerback has fully commenced. Kendall Sheffield continues to impress in an extended role. Between playing on the left side and in the slot, his ability to play in multiple areas makes him a potential long-term staple in the secondary. The rookie corner is coming off his finest game as a pro. He allowed only 28 yards on seven targets against the Saints per Pro Football Focus. A key pass breakup when covering Ted Ginn Jr. in the slot ended up making a huge difference in preventing the Saints from scoring a touchdown.

On the other side, Isaiah Oliver is starting to rebound following a disastrous start to his career as a full-time starter. Oliver hasn’t made the same mental errors he was making earlier in the season. The infuriating holding penalties and blown zone coverage assignments aren’t occurring like they were in September. Although Michael Thomas beat him on a few occasions, the former second round pick held up well when isolated against him. The confidence in his overall ability is starting to become more evident. If Oliver can avoid getting caught up in hand fighting and improve on locating the ball, his coverage ability should improve drastically.

Both corners will be tested against Carolina’s promising receiving duo. D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel are explosive, versatile playmakers. They aren’t simply pass catchers who can separate and move the chains. Whether they’re asked to run vertical routes or end arounds, both receivers are dangerous when they have the ball in their hands. Moore, in particular, is developing into a legitimate number one wide receiver. According to PFF, he has caught 11 out of 20 contested targets. His ability to win at the catch point against physical cornerbacks makes him a difficult matchup for anyone. Oliver and Sheffield must be prepared to challenge him at all times, otherwise they will be on the receiving end of several big plays.