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Panthers vs. Falcons: The most compelling storylines

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Can the Falcons finish their home stretch on a high note against an equally disappointing team?

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Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

At this time last month, only one of these teams were expected to make a coaching change during the season. The Falcons seemed bound to fire Dan Quinn. Two dominant divisional victories on the road secured Quinn’s coaching status for the rest of the season. Arthur Blank’s patience may come back to haunt him, particularly with how poorly they have played over the past two games. On the other side, David Tepper isn’t wasting time in rebuilding a franchise in disarray.

His decision to fire Ron Rivera with four games left many people stunned. It’s a rational move based on wanting to assess future potential head coaching options. While Rivera commands respect for what he’s accomplished, it’s clear his time was up following multiple disappointing seasons. It puts Carolina in a precarious position going into a matchup of two teams in dire need of a fresh start. Can Quinn earn another divisional win to regain some momentum going into the final stage of the season?

Offensive line must rebound

After allowing 15 sacks, the Falcons offensive line is under fire. They were embarrassed multiple times in five days by divisional opponents. Shaquil Barrett and Vita Vea led Tampa Bay’s ferocious assault on Matt Ryan. They tore apart whoever tried to block them in one-on-one matchups. Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport did the exact same thing on Thanksgiving. According to Pro Football Focus, New Orleans’ edge rushing duo combined for 15 pressures. Dennis Allen is known for moving both players around to create mismatches. They exploited those mismatches to prevent Ryan from leading an unexpected comeback.

There haven’t been any suggestions that Quinn will make personnel switches. Starting Wes Schweitzer over Jamon Brown didn’t translate into much success. James Carpenter’s injury forced Brown back on the field, which failed to make any substantial difference. All three guards have been liabilities this season. It makes you wonder why Matt Gono hasn’t received an opportunity, especially when he shined in preseason. Not giving a player with upside an opportunity over three underachieving veterans is nonsensical for a team out of the playoff race.

Losing Kawann Short and Dontari Poe has left the Panthers shorthanded on the interior. They still possess plenty of talented pass-rushers in Gerald McCoy, Brian Burns, Mario Addison, and Bruce Irvin. All four players are capable of generating pressure. This is a stern test for a massively underwhelming offensive line. Jake Matthews is making too mistakes for a player of his caliber. Kaleb McGary hasn’t showed much improvement in addressing his glaring pass protection issues. Quinn doesn’t have much of a choice, as he continues to rely on most of his current starting lineup. They will need to elevate their game in another difficult matchup.

Matt Ryan bouncing back

For all the issues up front, Ryan’s poor play can’t be ignored. His decision making and accuracy was horrendous against New Orleans. Coming off a grueling beating four days beforehand against Tampa Bay, it was a tall order facing one of the best teams in the league. Ryan was bound to take risks and make mistakes. Missing clear open throws that top-level quarterbacks should never miss is something nobody could have anticipated. He missed Calvin Ridley downfield following a clear coverage breakdown from Eli Apple. Not hitting Ridley on fourth down for what would have been a touchdown proved to be a game-changing mistake. His blunders from Thanksgiving go beyond the multiple interceptions.

What will be encouraging for Ryan is that his two most reliable weapons are expected to return. Julio Jones and Austin Hooper gives the franchise quarterback the confidence he needs to make certain throws. There was a sense of hesitancy from Ryan against New Orleans. Not trusting the array of unproven skill position players hindered the offense. Dirk Koetter’s inexplicable decision making and uninspiring play designs didn’t help matters either. With Jones and Hooper back in the fray, Ryan should be able to make quicker decisions and higher-percentage throws.

The former MVP needs to play better under pressure. Per Pro Football Focus, Ryan is being pressured at the third highest rate in the league this season. It’s forced him into being more turnover-prone, where he ranks high on PFF’s list. Carolina blitzed often under Rivera’s regime. There is no telling how much they distance themselves from his methods. Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson can wreck opposing teams on blitzes. Utilizing both linebackers to attack a disorganized offense seems like a recipe for success. It’ll also help prevent Koetter from having success running his signature vertical passing concepts. Ryan’s poor accuracy on downfield throws is limiting him from running his ideal game plan. NFL Matchup on ESPN ranks Ryan fifth worst in passer rating on throws of 20 yards or more. Ryan’s ball placement must improve in order for the offense to produce more explosive plays.

Heavy emphasis on defensive organization

Although statistics may not indicate it, the Falcons defense has regressed over these past two losses. The disorganization and miscommunication that haunted them earlier the season is starting to derail them again. Jameis Winston capitalized on their mistakes on the back end. If it wasn’t for Jared Cook’s notorious drops, Drew Brees would have found greater success against them. Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich were starting to bring solidity to the secondary Their progression has stagnated following their recent losing streak.

Some of their issues can be attributed to a non-existent pass rush. Only Deion Jones has managed to hit the opposing quarterback in the past two games. What continues to be troubling is how Damontae Kazee and Ricardo Allen aren’t on the same page with their teammates. From not being positionally organized before the snap to being late in handling their coverage assignments, both safeties have been at fault on several big plays. It must come as a major disappointment considering how talented both players are.

A rematch against Kyle Allen should bode well for their chances to bounce back. Allen’s inability to read defenses is costing Carolina games. Not being on the same page with his receivers is leading to careless turnovers. With Desmond Trufant playing at a high level and Isaiah Oliver continuing to improve, opportunities will be there for the taking. Jones is always bound to make a game-changing play, especially when facing a team reliant on their running back like Carolina is with Christian McCaffrey. Before creating turnovers, the defense needs to get back on track from a communication and organization standpoint. That will allow them to take advantage of a quarterback short on confidence.