One of the pivotal battles to watch in the Atlanta Falcons Week 1 matchup against the Carolina Panthers will be along the interior defensive line.
You’d be forgiven if your mind immediately went to Panthers defensive tackle Derrick Brown, who dominated last year’s matchups against the Falcons. However, I’m referring to the matchup featuring the Falcons’ defensive tackles, where the team invested significant resources this offseason to add the likes of David Onyemata and Calais Campbell to join forces with stalwart Grady Jarrett. Those investments will be at the forefront of deciding if the Falcons walk away from their season-opener with a win to get the team over .500 record for the first time since 2017.
While the memes surrounding Panthers rookie quarterback Bryce Young’s diminutive stature have been hilarious, it’s unlikely to have a detrimental effect on his ability to play at a high level on an NFL field. Yet, the Falcons can challenge that assumption by generating frequent pressure up the middle. This should be possible since that’s where the Panthers are weakest along their offensive line.
Alongside Young, right guard Chandler Zavala will also be making his NFL debut come Sunday, where he should get a not-so-warm welcome from Onyemata. During the preseason, all six of Onyemata’s snaps came lined up on the left side of the defensive line, which faces the right side of the opposing offensive line. Meanwhile, Jarrett should also see a favorable matchup going against the Panthers' left guard Brady Christensen.
Elsewhere along their front, the Panthers are also concerned about the preseason struggles of second-year left tackle Ikem Ekwonu. He’ll be challenged by Campbell, fellow Falcons newcomer Bud Dupree, and second-year pass-rusher Arnold Ebiketie on the edge. The goal of the Falcons will be to make sure Ekwonu’s summer struggles linger for at least one more week into the regular season.
But the Panthers are aware of some of these potential mismatches favoring the Falcons on passing downs. Making it so that they’ll try to avoid them if at all possible by focusing their gameplan around their ground attack. It’s a worthwhile strategy given Carolina had a lot of success running the football in last year’s two meetings for a combined 401 yards.
However, the hard-running D’Onta Foreman, who accounted for 248 of those yards on 57 combined carries, departed this offseason for Chicago. He was replaced by a more elusive and explosive running back in Miles Sanders. Yet, Sanders has been battling a groin injury all summer long and may not be ready to carry such a massive workload at this point in the season.
Despite that, it’ll be important that the Falcons are up to the challenge of stopping the run. If they can do so on early downs, that should lead to more third-down situations where their pass rush can pin their ears back and get after Young behind a questionable Panthers offensive line.
That fits perfectly with new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen’s daily mantra of being an attacking and aggressive unit. That newly instilled mindset should be fully on display Sunday, which should help the Falcons get their first season-opening win since 2017.