It's that time of the week again folks...time for the Friday Five!
This week the Panthers travel down I-85 to Atlanta where our good friends the Falcons are waiting for us in the Georgia Dome for a good old fashioned NFC South slobber-knocker. Both the Falcons and the Panthers are struggling so far this season, and neither team wants to fall another game behind in the always-close NFC South division race, so you can bet your bottom dollar this is going to be a hard fought battle from whistle to whistle -- the way an NFC South football game should be.
The Falcons currently lead the all-time series 20-12, and have won 4 of the last 5 meetings between the two squads. The Falcons have outscored the Panthers 154-96 over the last 5 games, with an average score of 31-19. This was no different last season, as Atlanta took both games from Carolina by a 31-10 margin.
But, this is a new season. We have a new coaching staff, a new franchise quarterback, a rejuvenated Steve Smith, a young core of players who are hungry for a win, and a fan base that is fully behind this new look Panthers team. This game isn't going to be easy, but if the Panthers can limit their mistakes and force a few mistakes here and there from their opponent, they have a chance to take this game and move to 2-4 on the season.
Follow me after the jump where we will look at five key points for this weekend's date with the Dirty Birds.
1. Tony Gonzalez
It's no secret that the Falcons love to use their future HOF tight end as a deadly weapon in their offense. And it's no secret to the average Panthers fan that our defense struggles against good pass catching tight ends, especially with the season-ending injuries suffered by Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. When you add these two factors together, it doesn't take much to figure out that Tony Gonzalez is going to be a huge factor in this game, and if the Panthers want to have any chance of winning on Sunday they have to figure out a way to stop the Falcons from throwing to Gonzalez time and time again as they march up and down the field.
Since he's been with Atlanta, Gonzalez has been pretty good against the Panthers, posting an average of 5.7 receptions for 56.4 yards (9.88 YPC), and 0.57 TD's. In the 7 games he's played against the Panthers, the Falcons are 4-3.
The stat that stands out the most to me is the YPC number. We simply cannot allow the Falcons to gain 9.88 yards every time they throw the football to Tony Gonzalez, otherwise we're going to be in for a long afternoon. The best thing the Panthers defense can do is take Gonzalez out of the game plan and force the Falcons to run the football or throw to another target. Given our propensity to give up huge running plays so far this season, I'm sure you did a double take when you read that last sentence, but allow me to explain.
2. Michael Turner
We all know who Michael Turner is. He's the guy who kills the Panthers every time we play the Falcons. In his 6 career games against Carolina, Turner has 124 carries for 568 yards (4.58 YPC), and 9 TD's; and 3 receptions for 16 yards (5.33 YPC), and 0 TD's. While he's not that much of a receiving threat out of the backfield, Turner is a great runner who always seems to bring his A-game against Carolina. (Don't believe me? Just look at what he did to us last season.)
While Turner has been a great running back against us in years past, he's not running so well this season. Furthermore, as PanthersRoar pointed out in a fanpost yesterday evening, Turner has two runs of 63 and 53 yards which account for 32% of his total yardage this season. If you take those two big plays out of the equation, Turner is only averaging 2.98 YPC this season (82 carries for 244 yards). For whatever reason, Turner is only averaging 16.8 carries per game, and if the Panthers can shut down the passing attack to the tight end and force them to run the ball with Turner, the defense could potentially shut him down and turn the Falcons in to a one-dimensional offense, which brings me to my next point.
3. Chris Gamble vs. Roddy White
I've said on numerous occasions that Chris Gamble is one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the league, and I say that because it's the absolute truth. Contrary to popular belief, he's been a solid shut down corner for us for the majority of his career, and that rings true this season as well, as he has had success preventing receivers such as Larry Fitzgerald and Greg Jennings from having huge games against the Panthers. If he's been able to shut down two of the league's best receivers, then there's no reason to believe he can't do the same thing to Roddy White on Sunday.
In his career against Carolina (12 games), White is averaging 5 receptions for 61.25 yards and 0.33 TD's. While any player is capable of having a huge game at any time, I like Gamble's odds of shutting down White this Sunday considering he's pretty much kept him ineffective over the past few seasons. When you consider the fact that Julio Jones will not play due to a hamstring injury, it makes Gamble's ability to shut down White even more worrisome for the Falcons, who won't have many other options to get the football to if the Panthers are able to take away Gonzalez, Turner, and White.
Seeing the defense shut down the Falcons offense would be a thing of beauty, but honestly the best way for the Panthers to shut down the Falcons offense is to keep them off the field, which brings me to number four on the list.
The Panthers need to have success running the football this week to keep the offense on the field and keep the ball out of Matt Ryans hands. If Matt Ryan doesn't get the ball, he can't find Tony Gonzalez on a crossing route, he can't hand off to Michael Turner, and he can't find Roddy White or Harry Douglas on a deep route. If Double Trouble can be as effective against the Falcons as they were against the Saints, the Panthers' chances of winning this game become very good.
Currently the Panthers are ranked 13th overall in the NFL in rushing yards (116 per game), and they're going to need this kind of performance this weekend. Sure, we all love seeing Cam Newton sling the ball up and down the field because 60 yard touchdown bombs are sexy, but the best way to win this game is to control the clock and maintain a balanced offense with a steady dose of Double Trouble, mixed in with some deep throws from Cam to Smitty to keep the Falcons defense on their toes.
This will not be an easy task, however, as the Falcons are 8th in the NFL in rushing defense (89 yards per game allowed). But, if the Panthers can get the proper mix of rush and pass, they should be able to control the clock and keep the Falcons offense off the field.
Perhaps the most important cog in the offense is the quarterback, which happens to be my fifth point this week.
5. Cam Newton
How will Cam Newton handle playing in his first divisional road game of his young NFL career? These are the types of games that he has to win: going into a hostile environment as the underdog in a game that the team needs to win in order to stay relevant in the NFC South division race. Can Cam Newton lead this team to victory on Sunday? I think he can, and I think he will if he plays smart and limits his mistakes. We've seen some interesting mistakes from Newton so far this season, but we haven't really seen anything that isn't to be expected from a rookie quarterback in the first five games of the season.
The game plan to beat the Falcons is simple: shut down Tony Gonzalez, shut down Michael Turner, shut down Roddy White, and maintain good ball control on offense to keep the football out of Matt Ryan's hands. If the Panthers can do these things, while simultaneously preventing the big back-breaking play they seem to fall victim to every week, they will leave Atlanta with a victory and a record of 2-4 on the young season.
Sound off, Panthers fans! What are you looking out for this weekend? Feel free to add your thoughts about this weekend's game in the comments.
My official prediction: Carolina 28 Atlanta 24