Good afternoon Panther faithful and happy hump day! While we pick ourselves up from the narrow loss in New Orleans and mourn the football loss of Thomas Davis, it's now time to look forward to Sunday as the Carolina Panthers (3-5) face the Atlanta Falcons (5-3) in their second contest of the year; the first being in week two when the Falcons beat the Panthers 28-20.
After a horrendous start to the season the Panthers seem to have regained some of their identity in recent weeks, and while they have shown flashes of brilliance, they have also not pulled everything together yet. Meanwhile, the Falcons have won all the games they should have won against weaker opponents and lost games against New England, Dallas and New Orleans
In this writer's mind the Atlanta Falcons are very similar to the team the Panthers saw in week two, but this is a completely different Panther team to what Atlanta saw. Divisional matchups are always tough, so let's break it down
After the jump...
Atlanta run offense vs. Carolina run defense
What was thought to be one of the best running games heading into 2009 has slightly underperformed expectations for the Atlanta Falcons. While Michael Turner has been very effective and is on pace to rush for 1,440 yards it seems Turner will finish the season with less yards than the 1,599 he put up in 2008. In recent weeks Turner has shown dominance with stout performance against New Orleans and Washington running for over 150 yards in both contests.
Meanwhile, the Carolina run defense which looked porous early on has slightly solidified improving to 23rd in the NFL. A vital piece of this run defense was the addition of Hollis Thomas in the middle to allow MLB Jon Beason to make more plays; the Panthers did not have Thomas when the two teams last played. Thomas Davis is vital to the run defense also, but is more suited to taking down backs who like to find the edge. Turner is the definition of a North-South back so it will be incumbent upon Jon Beason to make the plays, and I think he's up to the task.
KEY MATCHUP: Atlanta pass offense vs. Carolina pass defense
The Panthers #1 pass defense was mocked by the Saints especially on big plays to drop it to 6th in the NFL at this time. The last contest was dominated by future hall of fame TE Tony Gonzalez who brutalized the Panthers secondary. Following the Atlanta matchup Thomas Davis became the Panthers primary weapon to counter the dominant TEs the Panthers faced, forcing Jason Witten, Kellen Winslow, Chris Cooley and Jeremy Shockey to have below average days. In this regard the loss of Davis hurts the Panthers the most. It will be incumbent upon Captain Munnerlyn to likely take on this duty representing the best tackling in our secondary. My guess is that he'll be the man to shadow Gonzalez on Sunday, but it is unlikely he'll be able to shut down, or limit Gonzalez. Roddy White is a major threat to, especially in the YAC where Chris Gamble's tackling has been suspect at best.
Carolina run offense vs. Atlanta run defense
DeAngelo Williams has been running like a man possessed the last few weeks, but his success is highly incumbent upon the coaching staff getting the ball in his hands. Williams is now on pace to rush for 1,536 yards and 14 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Jonathan Stewart's production is slightly off pace but still on target for 768 yards and 8 TDs. The Falcons are 24th in the NFL against the run, and the way DeAngelo has caught fire (running for 548 of his 768 yards in the last 4 games) he'll be tough to stop; provided he gets the ball.
Carolina pass offense vs. Atlanta pass defense
Jake Delhomme hasn't been throwing interceptions. That's about the most positive thing you can say about Carolina's passing offense at this point. Everyone seems out on synch at the moment. Smith isn't running his routes as crisply as he normally does, key passes are being dropped and the coaching staff seem to be calling pass plays when the feel like it, rather than when they have a reasonable chance of success. If Muhsin Muhammad is able to play the Panthers should get a much welcomed boost and a big target who can hopefully take some pressure off Smith. The Falcons are giving up a lot of yards through the air, but ultimately it's the Panthers 24th ranked pass offense against the Falcons' 27th ranked defense, and until the Panthers show me they can score passing TDs I'm not buying it will be a factor.
The Panthers' special teams made strides vs. New Orleans, but they're still far from redeeming themselves. The Panthers are only averaging 19.7 yards per return, a paltry number, meanwhile allowing opponents an average return of over 30 yards. The Falcons are displaying some of the best kickoff coverage in the NFL allowing only 21 yards.
Most Panther fans are well aware of the coaching decisions that have been made in recent weeks, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. The Panthers defense remains a solid and well coached defense, conversely the offense seems in shambles, particularly after half time.
Mike Smith is one of the best new(er) coaches in the NFL and his Falcons are playing to their potential. Their play calling is dynamic and they utilize the players they have to put them in a position to win, that's the difference right there,
Looking at this prognostication it would seem the Falcons have the Panthers' number this week. While that could very well be true, I think the Panthers know that they need to play each game now as if it were their last. The Panthers cannot afford to have control of another game going into halftime only to play scared in the second. In each of the areas where one team has an edge, I see it as a razor's edge... extremely narrow and very close. The Panthers could, and should be 5-3 right now, or at the worse 4-4. I still don't believe the Panthers look like a 3-5 team heading into this game.
While I think Tony Gonzalez will be a major factor in Sunday's game, but I also think Michael Turner will be mostly ineffective in Sunday's matchup. I think Carolina controls the ground and Atlanta controls the air, much like Carolina's game vs. New Orleans. The difference, however, is that Atlanta doesn't have the same big play potential in their passing game that New Orleans showed, and I think that's a major difference.
Carolina Panthers 21 - Atlanta Falcons 17