NFL Week 15 is here! The Atlanta Falcons take on the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in a rematch of one of the only decisive victories of the season for Atlanta. Carolina has since been in a bit of a death spiral, firing much of their coaching staff and struggling to a 1-12 record. While the Panthers were officially eliminated from the playoffs, this is a critical game for Atlanta’s thinning playoff hopes.
Here at The Falcoholic, we like to think we keep you incredibly well-informed on all things Falcons. We’re not nearly as diligent in covering the Panthers, so I’ve enlisted the help of Carolina expert Walker Clement. Walker is an editor over at Cat Scratch Reader, SB Nation’s site covering all things Carolina Panthers.
I brought five questions to Walker on a variety of topics, including his thoughts on the coaching staff changes, the early returns from Bryce Young, and a whole lot more.
1. After facing the Falcons in Week 1 (and looking pretty competitive for the majority of the game), everything seems to have fallen apart for the Panthers. A coaching staff that was lauded around the league didn’t even make it through the first season intact. What do you think about the decision to move on from Frank Reich (and others) so quickly? Do you think the GM survives?
Walker Clement: I’m still a little shocked that everything fell apart so quickly, but it became readily apparent to anybody watching the Panthers that Reich just was not it. Everything that surfaced since his firing has implied the behind the scenes was more chaotic and dysfunctional than the product we saw on the field.
As for Fitterer, his future is uncertain. If fans had their druthers then he would have been fired by Week 5. There is conflicting reporting about what assurances he has and has not been given behind the scenes, but my bet is that he is gone by the end of the year. NFL interviewing rules don’t allow for a lot of candidate contact during the season, so there isn’t much tactical value to firing him now, for example, as opposed to once the season has wrapped.
2. It’s pretty clear that Bryce Young is not performing as well as anyone had hoped, given Carolina’s investment in him and his obvious talent coming from the college ranks. At this point, do you think it’s more of a Young problem or a situation problem? Is there still hope that Young could turn into the Panthers’ franchise QB?
WC: I’ve been beating the “we need more time to assess” drum since the first time the Panthers lost to y’all. Now that we’re on the eve of the second time that we’re going to lose to the Falcons this season? The drum beats are getting fainter.
Bryce has had a historically poor supporting cast. That includes his coaches. It is really hard to say “he’s a bust,” but there is also nothing that I can really point to and say “there’s the Young that better coaches are going to build on.” We’re praying for the Josh Allen second season glow up, but true hope has long since abandoned the Carolinas. We’ll believe it when we see it.
3. In terms of units that have underperformed, the offensive line seems like the biggest culprit. The guard position has been absolutely devastated by injuries, but it seems like the tackles—particularly Ikem Ekwonu—have not lived up to expectations. What’s been the biggest problem there, and do you think the OL’s issues are a primary reason for the offense’s struggles?
WC: The transition to a zone blocking scheme for Reich’s offense that directly contradicted most of our players strengths may have had something to do with it. I think Ickey is facing more of a sophomore slump than any true regression. Everything is about next season at this point and my guess for 2024 is that better injury luck, coaches who cater to the players’ strengths, and a locked-in Ekwonu will create every opportunity the offensive line needs to bounce back to its 2022 glory.
4. Looking at the Panthers defensive stats is one of the most puzzling things I’ve ever seen. Carolina is 31st in points allowed...and 4th in yardage allowed. They’re legitimately top-5 against the pass and just slightly below-average against the run. I thought it might be that the offense was turning the ball over at a crazy rate, but that’s not even the case: Carolina is 13th in offensive turnovers, better than the Falcons! What is going on here?
WC: The field position game has not been kind to the Panthers, in large part because the offense can’t sustain drives. Add on their mild quibble about scoring points, and you have a recipe for an exhausted defense playing against an opposing offense that is often happy to run out the clock in the third quarter—and would be strategically safe to do so in the first.
I would have loved to see this defense playing with an offense that could actually, you know, offend. Basically, expect the first half at least to be a tightly contested game with very little scoring. Eventually, things will loosen up for the Falcons offense while the Panthers offense eventually trips over the hem of their dad’s too-long pants and dress shirt that they’ve been wearing around the house all season playing pretend.
5. The Falcons are just 3-point road favorites over the Panthers on DraftKings Sportsbook, which might seem too low to some (not me). What are your thoughts and predictions for the upcoming game?
WC: Never bet on the Panthers to succeed if you like money. They are 1-12 for a reason. I fully expect them to be 1-13 come Monday morning. My advice won’t change next week if they magically find themselves 2-12. Mistakes happen, but consistent success is outside of this team’s capacities this season.
Just please do us a favor and make sure the Saints don’t win the division, yeah?
Many thanks to Walker Clement for taking the time to answer my questions. You can follow him on Twitter at @MetaphorGuy, and if you’re in the mood for a Panthers perspective on things, follow Cat Scratch Reader at @CatScratchReadr.
Looking for more Falcons-Panthers coverage? Check out our Dirty Birds & Brews game preview show.