At first glance, finding intrigue in a Week 15 matchup between the 6-7 Atlanta Falcons and 1-12 Carolina Panthers is difficult. Almost as difficult as being able to name five Falcons players.
Yet I have managed to pull off both impossible tasks by looking back at the team’s Week 1 victory over Panthers to find players who can build upon that initial success this late in the season, or those who need to show that the team has improved significantly since then.
Falcons rookie running back Bijan Robinson can be expected to have a big day against the Panthers, who sport one of the NFL’s weakest run defenses. The Panthers’ run defense ranks 22nd currently in rushing yards allowed per game, but 32nd in DVOA and 30th in expected points added. Robinson proved solid, gaining 56 yards, in his debut against the Panthers in Week 1, and should be even better at this point in the season. Sunday will be a good litmus test to see exactly how far he’s come during his rookie season.
With right tackle Kaleb McGary sitting out this week due to a knee injury, his replacement in Storm Norton will be under scrutiny. Norton has fared reasonably well as a replacement for McGary in multiple games this year, but is potentially facing his greatest challenge in Panthers outside linebacker Brian Burns.
Per Pro Football Focus, Burns rushes from the left side of the defense (and thus the right side of the offense) on about two-thirds of his pass-rush snaps, meaning he’ll be facing Norton for much of the game. Expect the Falcons to try and chip with tight ends and the like to slow down Burns’ speed rush, but Norton will still have to step up to prevent Burns from taking over this game.
Ta’Quon Graham & Albert Huggins
Falcons defensive tackles Ta’Quon Graham and Albert Huggins also need to step up versus the Panthers. The Panthers’ game plan will likely rely heavily on their ground attack, where the Falcons have been too vulnerable at times up the middle of their defensive line. That proved the case in last week’s loss to Tampa Bay, with both Graham and Huggins seeing an increased amount of snaps due to starters David Onyemata and Kentavius Street missing most or all of that game. The Bucs achieved their season-high 148 yards against the Falcons.
Yet the Falcons gave up 154 yards to the Panthers in Week 1, which featured a completely healthy Onyemata and Grady Jarrett. With Street set to miss this game once again and Onyemata being limited with an ankle injury, the Falcons will need stouter play from both Graham and Huggins this week if they want to stop Carolina’s ground attack.
It would be easy to argue that safety Jessie Bates almost singlehandedly won the Falcons their first matchup against the Panthers back in Week 1. His two interceptions and a forced fumble resulted in the Falcons offense scoring 17 points on their way to a 24-10 victory. Such playmaking ability will be a welcome boost to the team’s secondary and pass defense.
Can you name any other Atlanta Falcons, especially ones who intrigue you heading into this matchup?