The post-bye resurgence was fun while it lasted, but after two disappointing losses in a row, the Falcons seem to have returned to their pre-bye selves once more. After dropping their rematch with the Saints on Thanksgiving, the Falcons (3-9) get their rematch with the Panthers (5-7)—a team they previously throttled and that just fired their longtime head coach in Ron Rivera.
On paper, this may be the easiest remaining game on the schedule for the Falcons. Carolina is in disarray and Dan Quinn has been very successful against them throughout his tenure. As the Falcons beat them so handily on the road, they should have no problem doing it again at home. Right?
We’ll just have to hope that’s the case. If they want to get that W, however, they’ll need a strong performance from several players and position groups. Here are the most interesting players to watch as Atlanta takes on Carolina on Sunday.
The offensive line
It’s no secret that the strength of the Panthers defense is their pass rush. Carolina has amassed a whopping 46 sacks through 12 games, which leads the league and is a very impressive number on its own. In the first matchup between these two teams, the Falcons offensive line did an admirable job of keeping Ryan clean.
Fresh off a horrid performance against the Saints where the same unit gave up 9 sacks, can they bounce back against the Panthers? Can they produce any push whatsoever against the league’s worst run defense?
Austin Hooper and Julio Jones
The Falcons could be getting some good news on the injury front this week. WR Julio Jones and TE Austin Hooper appear to be nearing a return from their injuries, with both practicing in a limited fashion on Wednesday and Thursday. Julio is obviously the focal point of Atlanta’s entire offense, while Hooper has been one of the most impressive TEs in the NFL in 2019.
It was clear that the Falcons offense suffered mightily with both pieces missing against the Saints. Getting one or both back for this matchup with the Panthers could be key to the offense finding its rhythm again.
The run defense
The key to stopping the Panthers offense is stopping the run. Or, more specifically, stopping RB Christian McCaffrey. With QB Kyle Allen struggling after his hot start, Carolina is more reliant than ever on their rushing attack to produce points and control the game. As McCaffrey goes, so goes the fortunes of the Panthers.
Luckily, the Falcons run defense is vastly better than their pass defense—statistically speaking, at least. Atlanta only allows an average of 4.0 YPC—which is tied for 7th best in the NFL through 13 weeks. The Falcons gave up plenty of yards to McCaffrey in their previous meeting with Carolina, but kept him out of the endzone and were stout on third down. They’ll need to do that again if they want to scrape out a win on Sunday.
Speaking of good injury news, it appears the Falcons will be getting longtime punter Matt Bosher back in Week 14. Bosher was activated off IR and appears to be practicing fully this week, making his return all but guaranteed on Sunday. Although Atlanta was getting fairly solid punting from the various backups, including ex-Patriot Ryan Allen, Bosher has a special place in our hearts—particularly for his exploits against the Panthers.
Here’s to hoping Bosher has an illustrious return, giving us another highlight special teams tackle and some excellent punting to boot.
Carolina’s biggest weakness is their run defense. It’s the worst in the entire NFL, allowing a downright awful 5.3 YPC and 22 rushing TDs in 12 games. Those are incredible numbers, in a bad way. So the Falcons should have no trouble at all running the ball against them, right? Wrong. Dirk Koetter’s abysmal “run up the middle on 1st and 10” rushing scheme netted only 2.087 yards per carry on 26 rushing attempts. That’s right: against the NFL’s worst run defense allowing over 5 YPC, the Falcons could only manage 2.
So, needless to say, Atlanta must run the ball more effectively against the Panthers on Sunday. We can’t depend on the defense producing 4 INTs or a boatload of sacks every time these teams play. Establishing a consistent running game would also go a long way in slowing down the pass rush of Carolina, which we know will be fierce.
Who are some players you’ll be watching closely when the Falcons take on the Panthers on Sunday?