After a stunning upset win over the rival New Orleans Saints (7-2), the Falcons (2-7) head on the road to face the Panthers (5-4) in the second leg of their 5-game divisional stretch. Atlanta played their best game of the season against the Saints in Week 10, but can they sustain that momentum against Carolina?
If the rest of the 2019 season is any indication, the answer is “probably not”. Still, the Panthers are a much easier matchup than the Saints, and the Falcons have an opportunity to start division play 2-0 and knock Carolina down a peg in the Wild Card race. Here are some of the most interesting Falcons to watch as Atlanta takes on Carolina in Week 11.
Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison
With Devonta Freeman’s injury and Ito Smith on IR, the Falcons RB corps will have to shift significantly for Week 11’s matchup with the Panthers. Enter Brian Hill, who will get his first opportunity to start since joining the Falcons as a fifth-round pick in 2017. Hill has had an interesting beginning to his career, winding up cut by the Falcons in 2017 and signing with the Cincinnati Bengals. He rejoined Atlanta in 2018, and has been with the team ever since.
Hill was only moderately productive against New Orleans’ stout run defense, with 20 carries for 61 yards. He also showed some ability as a receiver, with a 10-yd TD catch that sealed the game. He’ll have a much easier time against the porous run defense of Carolina, who are allowing over 5 yards per carry on the season. This could also be our first glimpse at rookie RB Qadree Ollison, who has thus far failed to get a single carry. With just Hill and return specialist Kenjon Barner available at RB, Ollison should get his first action of the season on Sunday.
The other major injury for the Falcons in Week 10 was the loss of TE Austin Hooper. While it’s not considered serious, Hooper is likely to miss at least a few weeks. In his stead, the Falcons have veteran Luke Stocker—who has been largely relegated to a blocking role in Atlanta—and intriguing UDFA Jaeden Graham. Graham was Atlanta’s top receiver in the 2019 preseason, showing off some impressive athleticism and smooth hands.
This should be Graham’s time to prove himself to the Falcons. Stocker’s role is likely to stay the same, and he’ll be Atlanta’s primary blocking TE. With the team not making any additional moves at the position, Graham has a huge opportunity to establish himself as a quality receiving TE. He’s only had two catches for 32 yards thus far (for a healthy 16.0 YPA), but he’s been a fixture on special teams. If he can show something as a fill-in for Hooper, Graham could lock down a role as the TE2 on this team for years to come.
The run defense
Before last week’s miraculous defensive performance, Atlanta’s run defense was basically the only respectable part of the entire unit. While the Falcons have been slightly below average in total rushing yardage allowed (20th) and rushing TDs allowed (T-21st), both numbers have been inflated by volume. The defense is actually an impressive T-5th in yards per carry, allowing only 3.8 through the first nine games.
The Falcons will have one of their toughest tests of the season in Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey, who is tied for the league lead in rushing TDs. Carolina is one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks, averaging 5.1 yards per carry (3rd) and piling up 14 rushing TDs on the season (2nd). With the Panthers struggling through the air, one of the keys to victory will be limiting the damage McCaffrey can do on the ground.
The offensive line
The Falcons offensive line has had a very up-and-down first half of the season. Rookie first-round G Chris Lindstrom went on IR after the first game, and rookie RT Kaleb McGary missed almost the entirety of training camp after a heart procedure. Both free agent guards—James Carpenter and Jamon Brown—have dealt with injuries of their own, and primary backup C/G Wes Schweitzer is currently out with a concussion.
The unit put together one of their best performances of the season against New Orleans, giving up only a single sack and providing serviceable run blocking. They’ll have their work cut out for them against the Panthers, who lead the NFL in sacks with 36 through nine games. That’s an average of 4 per game—a very impressive clip. Luckily, McGary seems to be coming into his own after a shutdown performance against Cam Jordan, and the free agent guard duo appear to be fully recovered from their respective injuries. Keeping Ryan clean and opening holes in the Carolina run defense—which is their biggest weakness—will be paramount to finding success on offense.
After missing several games with a toe injury, Desmond Trufant appears close to returning. He was limited in practice to start the week, which could mean he’s likely to play in Week 11 against the Panthers. The Falcons have done a lot of tinkering in the secondary with Trufant out, moving Damontae Kazee back to FS and bringing rookie CB Kendall Sheffield up into the #2 role.
It’ll be interesting to see how things change when Trufant is back. Does the team move Sheffield back into the nickel, or is it Oliver who gets pushed into that role? Sheffield hasn’t had nearly as much playing time, but he’s been more impressive. Oliver, meanwhile, has struggled, but also seems to be improving. How much will Trufant’s return impact the play of the secondary? Will he be a big boost to a unit that has been downright awful through the majority of the season?
Who are some players you’ll be watching closely when the Falcons take on the Panthers on Sunday?