The Atlanta Falcons were supposed to be as bad last year as the Panthers were last week. Instead, they rallied behind a rookie coach, a rookie quarterback and a big name free agent to go 11-5 and secure second place in the NFC South. Like the Panthers, they were eliminated from the playoffs by the Arizona Cardinals. Unlike the Panthers, they played them close.
Prior to their season last year the Falcons got rid of a lot of prominent players on their roster. DeAngelo Hall, Rod Coleman, Warrick Dunn and Alge Crumpler were all traded away or released. Michael Vick was gone, and a lot of people were expecting a poor showing as a result. Prior to their season this year, the Falcons released or chose not to sign Lawyer Malloy, Domonique Foxworth, Keith Brooking, Michael Boley, and Grady Jackson. They effectively gutted the center of their defense, choosing to go with youth over experience. A lot of people are now expecting big things for the Falcons this year.
Of all the questions surrounding the 2008 Falcons, the play of Matt Ryan (22/36 for 229 yards, 2 TDs) was one of the biggest. Starting a rookie is always a risk, but he performed even better than hoped. If the 2008 draft were held again today, it's likely that Ryan would be the number one overall pick. At the time some people felt it was a reach to choose him at the third spot, but his play on the field more than justified it. He has the look of a franchise quarterback, from his play on the field to his preparation off it.
He wasn't the only reason that the Falcons went 11-5 last year, but he was certainly a big part of it. Ryan started every game for the Falcons in the 2008 season, and finished with 3,440 passing yds, 16 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Ryan was also named the NFL Rookie of the Year.
"Matt Ryan is a good, solid young NFL quarterback. But he's closer to being the next Kerry Collins than the next Peyton Manning. The only difference is that he's not a head case like Collins. But even though he played at a high level through the middle of the 2008 season, as soon as teams got a read on him and started scheming to stop him he struggled to throw for over 200 yards a game. And face it, anyone can look good under center when you have a dumbed down scheme and a back like Turner running the ball. If the Panthers can make Ryan beat them, they have a great chance to shut down the Falcon offense."
"The Panthers have two backs like Turner, and you don't see Jake looking good under center. Matty Ice completed over 60% of his passes, threw for over 3,400 yards, and notched 16 touchdowns last year. And he was a rookie. His first throw was a long touchdown to Roddy White, and he went out with a decent effort in Arizona. So far Matty Ice is 8-1 in Atlanta, and will probably improve on that Sunday. It wont be a matter of the Panthers making anyone beat them either, the Falcons have enough talent to choose their method of execution, and Ryan is a capable one."
Michael Turner (22 rushes for 65 yards) was the biggest name in free agency in 2008. Although big name free agent often fail to live up to their billing, Turner exceeded expectations in Atlanta. In his first game in Atlanta he broke the franchise single game rushing record with 220 yards on 22 carries with two touchdowns. He also earned the Atlanta single season record for rushing touchdowns with 17. He finished the season as the NFL's second leading rusher with 1,699 yards, and first in carries wtih 376.
Turner is a load to bring down at 5'10", 245 pounds. He's a quick back with the size to plow through the line, and once he hits the open field his ability to turn it on earned him the nickname Turner the Burner. He's also smart enough to follow his blocks, and he has the patience to let plays develop. He can catch too, but is used mainly as a runner. In every way he's one of the NFL's best running backs.
Platooning with Turner is 2006 third round pick Jerious Norwood (2 rushes for 7 yards, 5 receptions for 49 yards), who offers a big change-of-pace from Turner's style. Norwood is more of a speed back, and is always a danger to break a long run if he gets into the open field. He's also an accomplished receiver. Fullback Ovi Mughelli (2 receptions for 22 yards) is one of the league's best lead blockers, but isn't often called on to carry the ball. He does get called on to catch the ball out of the backfield at times.
"Turner is a solid back, but with the load he has to carry he's an injury waiting to happen. Backs that carry as much as Turner did tend to get dinged up the following season. The Falcons know that, so don't look for them to use him as much as they did in 2008. And in 2008 his stats were a little padded from the defenses he faced. Against teams like Detroit he got more yards than he did in both games combined against the Panthers. In 2008 the Panthers held him to 4 yards a carry and 173 over two games. Those aren't game changing numbers by any stretch."
"Shut down Turner and watch Ryan carve you up. Focus on Ryan and Turner will go wild. The Panthers were outgained on the ground in games against the Falcons last year, and that was when they had a defensive tackle who knew how to stuff the run. Against Lewis and Hayden, Turner will want to take it straight up the gut. The Panthers surrendered 185 yards on the ground last week at home to an aging Brian Westbrook and a rookie who were running behind a suspect offensive line. What do you think one of the best attacks in the NFL will do with players in their prime?"
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Atlanta is long on talent but short on depth receiver this year. Their number one wideout is pro bowler Roddy White (5 receptions for 42 yards), who set a franchise record in 2008 with 1,382 receiving yards, good for fourth in the NFL. Across the field the Falcons will line up Michael Jenkins (4 receptions for 41 yards). Jenkins is a deep threat who has struggled in the past to get open.
That struggle should be a lot easier thanks to the front office. In the offseason Atlanta traded for all-world Tony Gonzales (5 receptions for 73 yards, 1 TD), perhaps the best tight end in league history. Gonzales has been to ten pro bowls, which should tell you something about his talent. Gonzales currently holds the NFL career records for tight ends with 916 receptions, 10,940 yards and 76 touchdowns. He's already the leading receiver for the Falcons.
"Ok, I got nothing to say here..."
"This is the straw that breaks the camel's back. It's not bad enough that the Falcons have Turner and their running game. They weren't satisfied with getting a quarterback who could actually throw the ball. They had to go out and get a good tight end. And not just any tight end, they got the best one in NFL history. Just look at how well the Panthers have defended against tight ends in the past to get a hint of how bad this is. Did you know that Atlanta has a great punter? You'll have to take my word for it, because thanks to Gonzales you probably won't see him Sunday."
Last year the offensive line not only did a fine job opening enough holes for Turner to break the rushing touchdown record, they cut their sacks from 47 in 2007 to just 17 in 2008. That's an amazing improvement, and the line figures to only improve. Right Tackle Tyson Clabo, Guards Harvey Dahl and Justin Blalock, and Center Todd McClure all return, along with a healthy Sam Baker. Baker was a first round pick in 2008 but only appeared in five games. He will replace retured left tackle Todd Weiner. If anything, the line appears to be a better unit than the one which lined up a year ago.
"The Falcons are just a year removed from running a zone blocking scheme, and they still have the personnel to do that even though they're in more of a power set. They do a good job in protection but they can't get any push, and that's a big reason that Turner couldn't get a ton of yards against us. Against our current defensive line we actually have more speed, and match up even better to stuff the run. And Baker has short arms and isn't as good in protection as Weiner was. Look for Peppers to break through at least once for a sack, and to disrupt plays in the backfield all day."
"All that wishful thinking doesn't explain away just 17 sacks allowed last year. Against the Dolphins pressure they held up well in protection, surrendering only two sacks to a unit that got 40 in 2008. And they opened enough holes against a stingy run defense to keep the secondary honest, allowing Gonzales and White time to get free. This unit works well together and does a solid job in every phase of the game."
The Falcons were a bit soft on the defensive line last year, giving up enough rushing yards to earn the league's 25th spot against the run. They did well with applying pressure, mostly thanks to John Abraham (3 tackles, 2 sacks) and his club record 16.5 sacks. To help plug up the middle they drafted Ole Miss defensive tackle Peria Jerry (1 assist) in the first round. Lining up next to him is Jonathan Babineaux (2 tackles), who's been solid in the undertackle role for years. At the other end, 2007 first round pick Jamaal Anderson is entering a key year. If he can't finally show some pressure this year, he'll be replaced by Chauncey Davis (1 tackle).
"Pinning your hopes on a rookie defensive tackle is generally a losing strategy. Just ask Kansas City and New Orleans, both of whom had rookie DTs last year that we better than Jerry. Last year a younger Abraham got only one sack against the Panthers in two meetings, and our backs cut through them for 4.2 yards per carry. Given their skill in the secondary, that's more than enough for Jake to find Smitty all day long."
"Saying that Abraham only had one sack last year just tells me that he's due for a big game. Historically he's given the Panthers fits. Maybe he'll do us all a favor and knock Jake out of the game again, like he did in 2007. Atlanta's also found another end in Kroy Biermann, who had a couple of sacks against the Dolphins. If the Panthers get in third and long go ahead and warm the punter up."
The Atlanta Linebackers let two of their starting linebackers go in the offseason, Keith Brooking and Mike Boley. Replacing them will be second year player Curtis Lofton (10 tackles, one assist) in the center and free agent Mike Peterson (7 tackles) on the outside. Starter Stephen Nichols (6 tackles) returns to round out the starting unit. Lofton got a start and plenty of playing time as a rookie, and Peterson is an 11 year veteran, so the talent and leadership will still be there, just not in the same form.
"The linebackers are a weak link on the Falcons' defense. Nichols and Lofton have never been anything special, and Peterson's best days are far behind him. If either of our backs get into the secondary, it's good news for the Panthers. None of the Atlanta linebackers will be able to take down our backs by themselves."
"The Falcon linebackers aren't very special, but they don't need to be. They're still an improvement over last years' group. Even if they're less experienced there's more talent there and the Atlanta coaching staff is good at getting the most out of their players. Miami was held to 96 total yards rushing, more than 20 yards less than their 2008 average. This unit is a big reason for that."
This is the biggest area of concern in Atlanta. The Falcons secondary was already suspect last year, and they released safety Lawyer Malloy and lost cornerback Domonique Foxworth in the offseason. That leaves a group that's young and short on talent. Their starting cornerbacks are Brent Grimes and returning starter Chris Houston, and at safety the Falcons will run with Erik Coleman at Strong Safety and Thomas DeCloud at the Free Safety spot. Grimes and Houston were the starters early last year, but Grimes lost his starting job to Foxworth early in the season. This group is responsible for only six interceptions in all of 2008, and although there are some rookies with more talent on the bench, they lack the experience to bring it to the field.
"It seems the deeper you go in the Atlanta defense the worse things get. They lost their best cornerback from a group that was already suspect, and they have no leadership at all. None of these guys can stay with Smitty or Moose, it's doubtful that they could hang with Jarrett and Moore. If ever a quarterback needed a get well game, this is the group to give it to him."
"Atlanta plans on running ten yards behind the Carolina receivers, where the interceptions should come in bunches as Jake overthrows pass after pass. How good does a secondary need to be to be effective against the Panthers? This might be a get well game all right, but it won't be the quarterback recovering."
"These two teams have a lot of similarities. Each likes to run the ball, each has a good passing game, and each has a suspect defense. The difference is in talent, and the Panthers have more of it.
On offense the Falcons may have an edge at quarterback and tight end, but the Panthers have a better line and better backs. On defense it isn't close. The Panthers have a decided advantage in every unit.
So far this year the Falcons have done a better job executing, and planning. But they played the Dolphins and not the Eagles. and that's not quite the same challenge. The Falcons can't duplicate the Eagles' pressure and they don't have the personnel to stop the run either.
On defense the Panthers will bend but not break. Turner has never been effective against our linebackers, and with the addition of Brown our pressure packages will be even better than last years'. Ryan might find Gonzales and White, but the Panthers will keep them from turning in big gains and should be able to keep the Falcons out of the end zone.
The Panthers get back to basics in a big way. Williams and Stewart will control the game, and the Falcons will be unprepared for the speed of the Panther defens
e. Delhomme gets well, and Ryan will struggle.
Panthers 27, Falcons 9"
"All the Panthers need after the Philadelphia game is another great offense. And Atlanta brings that and more. They can run, go long, and work the flats. They have stars at every offensive skill position, and a line that gets the job done.
On defense the Falcons don't do much well outside of bringing pressure. And pressure defense is the one weakness the Panthers have. Once the Falcons get up by a couple of touchdowns, the coaching staff will turn the game over to Jake to throw away. Odds are he'll be pulled at the half, and Moore won't do much better.
This is going to be another miserable game in what's shaping up to be a miserable year for the Panthers.
Falcons 49, Panthers 10"