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Panthers offense offers unique challenge for Falcons defense

How Dean Pees draws up his game plan and how well his players execute it will tell us a lot about how far this unit has come.

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NFL: Atlanta Training Camp Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It’s certainly fair to say that the first year of Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees has not lived up to lofty expectations some might have had entering the 2021 season.

Watching an unproven Jalen Hurts and the Philadelphia Eagles carve up the defense to the tune of 32 points in Week 1 was certainly a letdown and left a lingering, bitter aftertaste that hasn’t fully been rinsed away by the passage of time.

But this weekend’s matchup against the Carolina Panthers presents a great opportunity and litmus test to see how far the team has come since then. That’s largely due to the fact that Carolina presents many of the same challenges the Falcons have already seen thus far this year, and their ability to answer those challenges this weekend will show us how much growth has occurred.

Of course, the most obvious challenge facing the team on Sunday was on full display the first time the Falcons and Panthers met this season when the latter gashed them to the tune of 203 rushing yards.

Expecting the expected

Stopping the run will be the first priority for Pees as he draws up a game plan this week. As Pees pointed out in his Thursday press conference, there’s no reason to think that Carolina won’t try to re-establish the run again. That’s especially true given that they’ll be sporting a different starting quarterback than last time in Cam Newton, who is still getting comfortable in their system. But it may not exactly be the same exact system since the Panthers fired offensive coordinator Joe Brady this past Sunday during their bye week.

Most assume that one of the reasons behind Panthers head coach Matt Rhule’s decision to part ways with Brady was due to the fact that the latter wasn’t as committed to running the ball enough. So you can bet that new play-caller Jeff Nixon won’t be looking to subvert expectations this week against Atlanta.

If the Falcons can stop the run on early downs, that should create more third-and-long situations, which should be advantageous for the defense. Since Cam Newton took over as the Panthers’ starter in Week 11, the Panthers have yet to convert a single third-and-long (meaning seven yards to go or more). Even before Newton took over as the starter, the Panthers sported one of the league’s worst third-down defenses, converting just 35 percent, which currently ranks 28th in the NFL.

The positive if you’re a Panther fan is that they’re going up against an equally inept Falcons third-down defense that ranks 30th in the NFL with opposing teams converting 48 percent of their third-down tries against them. Sunday we will get to see exactly what happens a stoppable force goes up against a movable object.

How the Falcons choose to defend the Panthers on those third-down situations will be worth monitoring. Because the Falcons will have a tough decision between deploying man or zone coverage primarily on passing downs.

Getting in the zone

The most recent Falcons-Panthers meeting also marked also the last time the Falcons deployed a high percentage of zone coverages. Based on my charting, the Falcons deployed zone on 72 percent of Panthers’ pass plays in Week 8. In their five games since, that figure has fallen to a combined 52 percent for the Falcons, with no single game featuring more than 60 percent of their coverages being zone.

It’s likely the Falcons went heavier on zone in part due to the mobility of Newton’s predecessor. That would be Sam Darnold, who gashed them multiple times with his legs whenever the Falcons deployed man coverage.

The Falcons utilized man coverage on just eight plays, including Cover-0 three times, Cover-1 four times, and Cover-2 man one time. The Cover-0 looks allowed the team to bring six or seven rushers, which closed down any running lanes that Darnold could have taken, forcing him to throw and resulting in him failing to complete any of those passes.

Darnold also failed to complete any passes against the Falcons Cover 1 and Cover 2 man looks as well, but he only attempted two such throws. The other three times against those coverages, Darnold was able to scramble for a combined 44 yards and three first downs, including two third-down conversions.

Yet when thinking of mobile quarterbacks, Darnold is probably not among the first names to pop into your brain, while Newton is. So the challenge for the Falcons defense will only get bigger this week if they are going to prevent a repeat of their last outing.

A reason why defenses utilize more zone when facing mobile quarterbacks is that there are more defenders with eyeballs on them. The problem with the Falcons using man coverage is that every player in coverage has his back to the passer because he’s shadowing a receiver downfield. And the one or two safeties (depending on if it’s Cover 1 or 2-man, respectively) tasked with preventing the deep ball are too far away from impacting the play if the quarterback chooses to tuck and run.

Typically teams offset this by having a single defender (usually the middle linebacker) spy the quarterback. That is a safe solution, assuming you have linebackers athletic enough for the role, which shouldn’t be a concern with Foye Oluokun and Deion Jones in Atlanta.

Applying pressure

But of course, that means you’re also relying on your ability to get pressure with just your front four, something that has been a major problem for the Falcons this year. They’re coming off a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in which they managed to pressure Tom Brady just four times on 52 dropbacks, an abysmal rate, according to Pro Football Focus.

That won’t inspire confidence that the Falcons will be able to get reliable pressure with four, even on the third-and-longs Pees envisions on occurring if/when the run defense takes care of business on early downs.

The one ray of hope comes from the fact that the Panthers' offensive line is vastly inferior to that of the Buccaneers. Given Carolina is dealing with a wealth of injuries up front this week, it would make sense for Pees to see if his front four can get home initially before seeking to dial up blitzes as a Plan B.

Because that need to have to dial up pressure was perhaps a contributing factor to why Darnold had such a productive day using his legs last time. It’s probably not a coincidence that two of his three scrambles versus man coverage saw the Falcons sending five defenders, which included the linebacker that would be normally tasked with spying him. The Falcons couldn’t get home or keep him contained, so Darnold was able to hurt them with his legs. And that challenge of course won’t lessen with Newton now under center.

So it’s a tough task ahead of Pees entering this week. First, the Falcons are going to have to shut down Carolina’s ground attack on early downs and hope that puts them into third-and-long situations. If so, then that will give a necessary advantage to Atlanta’s meager pass rush. But it’ll be critical that the defenders get home when the time comes, whether Pees chooses to deploy man or zone coverages.

Man potentially makes things easier for the Falcons defenders on the back end with their assignments and harder on the quarterback, due to requiring more pinpoint accuracy thanks to the smaller windows. Any Falcon fan will tell you that accuracy has never been a strength for Newton throughout his career, but he may not have to be pinpoint accurate as a thrower if man coverages create opportunities for him to move the chains as a runner.

At the end of the day, there’s no perfect defensive game plan for the Falcons. As is usually the case when it comes to defense, a scheme is only going to take you so far and success boils down simply to execution.

If the Falcons can execute whatever Pees draws up, it will show that perhaps this defense is beginning to come together. And while it may be too little too late to have a huge impact on the rest of the 2021 season, it’s a promising sign that with the inevitable talent infusion and roster turnover that occurs this offseason, that there are reasons to be optimistic that 2022 might be a year where the Falcons sport a defense that fans can be proud of.

Do you expect the Falcons run defense to fare better this go-round? Should Pees play it safe with more zone, or aggressive with man coverage? What progress do you hope to see from this Falcons defense for the rest of 2021?