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Intriguing players to watch in Falcons vs. Panthers

Naming five Falcons centers on the trenches this week.

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NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Once again, the task of naming five Atlanta Falcons that will be intriguing to watch in their Week 8 matchup against the Carolina Panthers falls to me. This week’s group includes several players along the line of scrimmage where the Panthers hope to challenge the Falcons. It also includes a young receiver that looks to have another breakout game, and a young corner that hopes to prevent one.

Drake London

Drake London is set to face another physical adversary in Panthers second-year cornerback Jaycee Horn, assuming the latter plays despite being listed as questionable with an injury to his ribs. London seemed to win a similar physical battle against New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore in their Week 1 matchup, with London finishing with a team-leading five catches for 74 yards on that Sunday.

One of my chief concerns with London coming out was whether or not he’d be able to quickly acclimate to the increased physicality of NFL corners versus their Pac-12 counterparts that he feasted on last season at USC. So far, London has checked that box. But he will need to do so again on Sunday if the Falcons’ passing game is going to improve.

Kaleb McGary

Whenever Falcons right tackle Kaleb McGary faces a tough matchup this season such as this week’s against the Panthers, many eyes are going to be glued on him. It is a contract year for him, and McGary is playing reasonably well while working towards a new deal. Despite giving up a sack to Sam Hubbard last week, McGary’s losses have been rarely discussed this year. With offensive linemen, the less people are talking about you, usually the better, since blockers tend to only be noticeable when they miss a block.

Yet McGary has seemingly dodged several bullets so far this year with players like Jadeveon Clowney and Nick Bosa missing their respective matchups against the Falcons. That leaves McGary mostly untested against the league’s most renowned and well-regarded pass-rushers.

This week, luck won’t be on his side while facing Brian Burns. Burns has given McGary fits in the past due to his speed and first-step quickness. Effectively blocking Burns on Sunday will dispel doubts about McGary’s recent improvements and put him firmly on a path to earning a lucrative deal on the open market this offseason.

Drew Dalman

In his first year as a starter, Drew Dalman has shown considerable promise as a run blocker. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the Falcons’ run game has exploded this year thanks in large part to the upgrades along the interior offensive line in Dalman and left guard Elijah Wilkinson.

However, Dalman has been a lot less reliable in pass protection, not to mention the frequent snapping issues that tend to rear their ugly head at the most inopportune moments. Dalman can build confidence moving forward with a good outing against Carolina defensive tackle Derrick Brown. Brown currently sits atop Pro Football Focus’ run defense rankings for interior defensive linemen (formerly known as defensive tackles). As long Dalman keeps winning as a “plus” run blocker, it will give credence to Arthur Smith’s decision to start him over Hennessy because the former meshes better with the team’s offensive identity.

Grady Jarrett

New Panthers starting center Bradley Bozeman was PFF’s highest-graded offensive lineman in his season debut during last week’s surprising win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That was mostly due to his dominance pushing the pile for a Panthers ground attack that put up 173 rushing yards on Tampa Bay, eclipsing the 151 yards the Falcons themselves ran for two weeks ago against the Bucs.

Grady Jarrett will have his work cut out for him going up against Bozeman. Jarrett has been filling in at nose tackle mostly since Anthony Rush’s surprise release three weeks ago. Both in the run game and on passing downs, Jarrett needs to make his impact felt so that Bozeman doesn’t top PFF’s charts two weeks in a row.

Darren Hall

Last week represented a golden opportunity for Hall to showcase his potential to be more than just a fill-in starter for injured starting cornerback Casey Hayward.. Indeed, Hall could have begun auditioning to be the long-term starter opposite cornerback A.J. Terrell. But a wrench was thrown into those plans when Terrell exited the game early with a hamstring injury. Hall didn’t respond well to the added responsibility of covering the Bengals’ talented wide receivers.

He’ll have to flip the script this week, where he’ll find himself matched up often against Panthers’ top pass-catcher D.J. Moore, as Hall needs to show that he can hold his own against quality receivers in Terrell’s absence. If Hall can make it clear that the dropoff from Terrell to him isn’t significant, that will do a lot more to build confidence in his potential to man a starting spot, as well as slow the Panthers’ passing attack.

Are there other Falcons that you can name that are intriguing enough to keep a close eye on versus the Panthers?