This afternoon's injury report will decide whether Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons will have a semblance of competitiveness, or become a nightmare. As many as three more starters could miss Sunday's game, further decimating an already weak unit. Today we look at the defense, and their chances against a talented Falcons' offense.
An unfortunate likely firing in the wake of Carolina's general manager search will be defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. Unless the new GM decides to take a season to evaluate the current coaching staff, the probable outcome will be an entirely new staff -- leaving talented coordinators like McDermott in the cold. His two years in Carolina haven't been stellar, but unlike compatriot Rob Chudzinski, the lack of defensive talent on the Panthers' roster is shocking, but they've over-achieved given the hand dealt them. Football Outsiders rank Carolina's defense as 14th in the NFL in DVOA, even after allowing the Kansas City Chiefs to embarrass them. This is a testament to McDermott's conservative, but somewhat-effective defense allowing 24.3 points per game, improved from 26.8 in 2011.
What the Atlanta Falcons lack in advanced metrics, they make up in raw offensive ability. It's conceivable that they can finish the 2012 season with a 1,000 yard rusher (Michael Turner), and three 1,000 yard receivers in Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez. Behind all of it is the quiet development of Matt Ryan, whose statistics may not inspire epic poems, but whose development shows him getting over a hump. Early in his career Ryan used Gonzalez as a crutch, eschewing risky plays for safer underneath routes. This approach was effective, but it gave Atlanta's offense a distinct lack of big-play ability, something they now have, and a key difference in this team from prior iterations. Ryan spreads the ball around more, puts it into tighter windows, and shows more inherent trust in his wide receivers -- all things that play to Carolina's weaknesses.
X-Factor: Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy
The difference in the week four match-up between these teams was Carolina's defensive ends. Johnson and Hardy caused enough disruption to throw off Matt Ryan's cadence, and shake the entire Falcons' offense. Totaling 4.5 sacks, the duo put on a show, much to the joy of Carolina Panthers' fans.
During a mid-season stretch, the Panthers' bookends were the best pass rushing duo in the NFL -- however they've fallen back to earth in recent weeks. Combining for 16.5 sacks on the year, they're still playing well, but scratch the surface and their season looks a lot shakier; 9.5 sacks came in just two games (Atlanta and Chicago), while they only show 2.5 in the last four games, despite playing against bad offensive lines in Kansas City and Philadelphia.
The jury is still out on whether they'll be the first pass-rushing duo in Carolina to total 10 sacks each since Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker in 2002, but without their interior defensive tackles, and a far wilier Atlanta offense, it's unlikely this will be the week they return to prominence.
Atlanta run offense vs. Carolina run defense
Michael Turner may not be the back he once was, but there's little reason to believe Atlanta's running back wont have success against a defensive front featuring Sione Fua and Andre Neblett. When these teams last met, Turner has his most successful game of 2012, finishing with 171 all purpose yards, and a touchdown. That was with Dwan and Ron Edwards -- yep.
Luke Kuechly is outstanding, but he can't do it alone. Flanked by Thomas Davis, the two standout linebackers have been one of the few bright spots on a Panthers defense that inspires more facepalms that fist pumps in late-game situations. Without a line up front to support them it's going to be a long day.
Atlanta pass offense vs. Carolina pass defense
If Charles Godfrey is out with an injury the Panthers will be starting Haruki Nakamura and D.J. Campbell at their safety positions. If Anderson is out there's suddenly a hole on one side of the field unable to account for Tony Gonzalez, and with Roddy White matched up on Captain Munnerlyn, with Julio Jones getting a shot at rookie Josh Norman, how exactly can the Panthers stop them?
Ockham's razor says they can't, and I'm with Ockham (not to be confused with Oldham).
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Atlanta Falcons 30 - Carolina Panthers 14
2012 pick record: 8-4