This was the toughest version of this article yet in 2020, at least for me. The Panthers are well-rounded and the Falcons aren’t doing much of anything right thus far, so figuring out an obvious weaknesses for Carolina and strength for Atlanta wasn’t quite as simple as it has been in weeks past.
Part of that owes to the Falcons not enjoying a strong passing attack the past couple of weeks, a function of injury, declining pass protection, and a couple of clunkers from Matt Ryan, particularly in Week 4. The Panthers, meanwhile, don’t do anything at an elite level but are solid in almost every facet of the game, making it harder to point to one thing they absolutely should be expected to do effectively.
That said, in the end there are still some clear answers here. Let’s look at them.
Feel confident that the Falcons will...run effectively?
This one seems like a wild thing to type, given that it hasn’t been anything more than a pipe dream for years now. Yet I firmly believe the Falcons will put up 100+ yards on the ground against the Panthers and that an efficient performance there could win them the game. How on earth can I be confident in that, given Dirk Koetter’s lack of run game acumen?
Basically, it’s because the stars are aligning for it. The Panthers a sneakily bad run defense, one that’s allowing the 21st-most rushing yards, 29th-best yards per attempt against, and 30th-best opposing touchdown total. That defense has allowed 100-plus rushing yards in every game thus far and 7 rushing touchdowns, including 4 against the Chargers.
The Falcons have yet to effectively use their ground game for four quarters in 2020, but to his mild credit, Koetter has been more willing to commit to it and even to try some outside runs than he was in 2019. That hasn’t congealed into a useful ground game just yet, but the Panthers do not have a capable run defense, Matt Ryan is coming off two lackluster games by his standards and won’t have Julio Jones, and both Todd Gurley and Brian Hill have shown they can actually make things happening when their blocking and play calling is sensible and solid. This feels like the week where that all comes together, even if it may just be a blip on the radar.
Fear Teddy Bridgewater
No quarterback has had a truly bad game against the Falcons yet. Mitch Trubisky wasn’t stellar and neither was Nick Foles, but they were still effective enough to win the game for Chicago, and all three of Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers have had stupendous games against this struggling Atlanta defense.
Until that changes, the quarterback and passing game of each week’s opponent is going to be my primary concern. Bridgewater is a particular challenge for Atlanta because of his accuracy and smarts as a passer, with an underrated arm that allows him to attack defenses deep and the kind of quick release that allows him to hit targets at short range as they get open. That’s why he’s been able to complete 73% of his passes thus far in 2020 without really breaking a sweat.
Bridgewater isn’t the best quarterback the Falcons have played or will play this year, but he has capable targets at tight end and running back and some tremendous receivers, ranging from speedy Robby Anderson to the very well-rounded D.J. Moore. If push comes to shove and the team does get pressure, Bridgewater has shown an ability to escape the pocket and make things happen, as evinced by his 12 carries for 70 yards and a touchdown. He’s simply very capable, very well-rounded, and playing in an offense that maximizes his strengths.
Until we see otherwise, I’d brace yourself for a rough one. Bridgewater threw two picks against the Buccaneers a couple of weeks back but also threw for 367 yards and completed nearly 80% of his passes, something that’s definitely on the table unless the return of a few injured Falcons makes a massive difference.