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Falcons still have much to prove vs. lowly Panthers

Atlanta has struggled to put away shaky teams this year, and have to prove they’re ready for the Panthers on the road.

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NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Any given Sunday is a cliche for a reason in the National Football League. Look no further than Thursday night’s blowout by the Las Vegas Raiders versus the Los Angeles Chargers as evidence of what can happen when one team is not ready to play.

The Atlanta Falcons have much to prove this Sunday when they travel to face the 1-12 Carolina Panthers. While a 42-point loss is unlikely, the Falcons could find themselves on the losing end of this game if they aren’t prepared.

Carolina’s game plan will be fairly simple. They’ll rely on their run game to try and carry their offense for the day. Despite the Falcons sporting one of the NFL’s better run defenses, they have proven vulnerable on runs between the tackles.

Since Week 8, the Falcons have allowed 4.6 yards per carry on runs between the tackles according to Pro Football Reference. That’s the sixth-worst mark in the league since then. It might be easy to chalk that up to the absence of defensive tackle Grady Jarrett in that span, but even beforehand, the Falcons were relatively weak. For the first seven games, the Falcons allowed 4.1 yards per carry on runs between the tackles, which was the 10th lowest in the NFL during that span.

Couple that with Jarrett’s replacement Kentavius Street being out and fellow defensive tackle David Onyemata being limited with an ankle injury, it’s a blueprint that can favor Carolina.

With this knowledge of the Panthers’ strategy, the Falcons will likely opt to stack the box to beef up their run defense. That was something they didn’t do last week in their loss versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which was a big cause of why they got gashed for 148 yards on the ground, which marked a season-high for the Bucs. Per NextGenStats, Bucs running back Rachaad White faced an eight-man box on just four percent of his runs last week, one of the lowest marks in the league that week.

The reason why the Falcons refused to stack the box was due to the presence of the Bucs' talented wide receiver duo Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. With starting cornerback Jeff Okudah out of the lineup, the Falcons knew they were vulnerable through the air. They wanted to give A.J. Terrell and Okudah’s replacement Clark Phillips as massive a safety net as possible by deploying two deep safeties for the majority of the game.

Given that Carolina doesn’t sport the same caliber of weapons at the wide receiver position, it’s likely the Falcons won’t be as afraid to drop those safeties down to help defend the run. But that does mean that the Falcons' corners will be left on an island for much of the game. And that opens up opportunities for the Panthers to take some shots downfield when they get those one-on-ones on the outside.

However, Carolina has struggled to exploit such opportunities thus far this year. Panthers rookie quarterback Bryce Young had similar opportunities last week against the New Orleans Saints, who deploy a similar style of defense as the Falcons under defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, a former Saints assistant. Yet, Young failed to take advantage of those looks, completing just one of 10 passes attempted over 20 yards in the air.

The vertical passing game has been sorely lacking in Carolina this year, further evidenced by Young’s adjusted completion rate of 32 percent ranking 32nd out of 36 qualifying quarterbacks according to PFF. Adjusted completion rate doesn’t count drops against the quarterback.

Of course, with Okudah expected to return to the lineup this week opposite Terrell, the Falcons should have a ton of confidence that their secondary can similarly keep a lid on Carolina’s limited vertical passing attack. But as any miserable Falcon fan will tell you, expectations are meaningless with this team.

The nagging memory of what Tennessee Titans rookie quarterback Will Levis did to this Falcons defense lingers at the back of your mind. In the Falcons’ Week 8 loss to the Titans, Levis hit a handful of deep shots and that was all the Titans needed to beat the Falcons 28-23. Levis completed just three of his eight deep shots in that game and all three went for touchdowns. It only takes a few cracks for the dam to burst.

Similarly, the Titans featured a steady diet of running back Derrick Henry to facilitate the bulk of their offense that day. The Falcons stacked the box on that day (about 36 percent of the time) and Henry still produced over 100 yards rushing.

I bring all this up not to say the Falcons will lose this Sunday, but rather that they can. Especially if they bring a similar lackluster effort as they did nearly two months ago against the Titans. I wrote ahead of that game that complacency was the team’s biggest challenge and echo those sentiments once again.

Another C-level (or worse) effort could cost the Falcons another win if they aren’t ready. If the Falcons' offense comes out flat as they often have in road games this year, coupled with a just a few defensive mistakes that allow the Panthers to dictate things with their run game and a couple of successful deep shots is the blueprint for another disappointing loss by Atlanta.

Back in Week 8, the Falcons were coming off an ugly win against the Bucs securing them first place in the NFC South. Now in Week 15, they’re coming off a disappointing loss to that same team that may wind up costing them the division. But that is dependent on how the Falcons perform over their final four games.

Now the Falcons find their collective backs against the wall and cannot afford any more disappointments if they want to reach the playoffs. So if they cannot muster a good game against the NFL’s worst team the Panthers on Sunday, how much hope can there be for the rest of the year?