I've got to admit, I really like the way the NFL has scheduled teams this season. It seems almost all 32 teams play a significant portion of their division schedule late in the year. Typcially if we only had four wins at this point in the season it would be easy to just write off the last games and coast out of 2011, but with three more divisional matchups to enjoy it's fun to see if the Panthers can play spoiler to some of our traditional foes late in the season.
This week is a perfect opportunity to spoil the 2011 playoff dreams of the Falcons, and in turn maybe help the Cleveland Browns get a better draft pick! This week needs to be a win for Atlanta if they hope to stay on pace to wrap up a wild card spot.
X-Factor: Double Trouble
The Atlanta Falcons currently rank 3rd in the NFL defending the run allowing just 90 yards per game on 3.7 yards per carry, they've also allowed only three runs of more than 20 yards this season. Here's where DeAngelo and J-Stew step in. The Panthers will need Stewart to break down the door and D-Will to burst through if they hope to have success on offense. Cam will get his yards, but as we saw last week Newton is far better when he has the support of a working running game.
It's almost impossible to predict how the Panthers' running backs will play this week because both have been consistently inconsistent. Williams has 4 games averaging less than 3 yards per carry, and another 3 games averaging over 7 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Stewart has 2 games averaging less than 3 YPC, and 1 game averaging more than 7. Each week it seems the RBs trade off who will perform well, and who will perform with mediocrity. Ultimately I think for the Panthers to have success on the ground they need both to be firing on all cylinders all the time, and I'm not sure that will happen.
Carolina Pass offense Vs. Atlanta Pass Defense
As good as the Falcons have been at stopping the run they've been almost as bad at stopping the pass. It's not just their 21st ranked defense that's concerning here, but rather the fact that they've allowed 43 passes of more than 20 yards this season, one of the worse teams in the NFL at stopping the deep pass. If there's one thing the Panthers have excelled at in 2011 it's passing deep, so this aspect of the game has the potential to get ugly.
In order to really exploit this aspect of the game Cam Newton is going to have to find a way to get Steve Smith the ball. Granted, Smitty is getting a lot more attention recently, but there are times Newton is not seeing Smith at a pivotal time to get a big gain. When it's all said and done though I think the Panthers will get the better of Atlanta in this phase.
Carolina Run offense Vs. Atlanta Run defense
I've already spent quite a bit of time on the RBs, so lets look at the OL. In short, it's a nightmare. As we saw against Indianapolis and Tampa Bay, Byron Bell struggles with quicker DEs with a good first step- enter Ray Edwards who has both these things. On the other side of the line we're still not sure if Jordan Gross could start meaning we could be seeing Travelle Wharton or... *gulp*... Lee Ziemba facing John Abraham. These match-ups are important because they will effect DeAngelo's ability to bounce to the outside, meanwhile Stewart will struggle running up the middle against a good stable of DTs.
I think the Panthers won't have a lot of luck running the ball this week. It would behoove Rob Chudzinski to rely more on the swing and screen passes he used so effectively earlier in the season.
Tomorrow I'll be looking at the Panthers defense and how they will fair against the potent Atlanta offense.