The Carolina Panthers are going into a very tough matchup this week, with the red-hot Atlanta Falcons playing at home. The Panthers are coming off an embarrassing defeat on prime-time against the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. The Panthers have not looked good in two out of three games this season, and will need to try and keep the game competitive, in hopes to try to keep from the one dimensional passing attack we have seen in each of our losses. The main way to stave off this issue is to A. Keep Cam upright and B. prevent the Falcons from scoring touchdowns as much as possible. I'm sure we've all heard enough of the Roddy White/Julio Jones talk for one season, but its true, they are an amazingly potent group of receivers. The Panthers don't really have any elite defensive backs other than Chris Gamble, and even if Gamble plays absolutely LOCK-DOWN defense, the opposite receiver could easily tear us up.
However fans, not all is lost. While the matchup certainly looks bad, the Panthers have a great deal of young talent that will need to step up for the Panthers to have any hopes of turning the season around. One matchup in particular is going to be key in this.
LaFell has been solid thus far in the season, as has Steve Smith playing opposite of him. While Cam has struggled, the two of them have combined for 478 yards receiving between them. The only problem is, LaFell is the only one of them to have scored a touchdown, and Smith hasn't scored at all yet this season. The Falcons pass defense has been great this season, leading the league in INT's and being ranked 7th in pass defense. The Falcons will also put pressure on the Panthers to pass with their high octane offense. However, Dunta Robinson is a veteran of this league, and LaFell hasn't had to face a player of his caliber yet as the Panthers starting number two receiver. LaFell will need to keep running his routes well and keep making those clutch 3rd down catches that Sticks is known for.
The Panthers will need both Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell to bring it and help the Panthers score some touchdowns in order to keep the Panthers two-dimensional. The safeties in Atlanta have been very impressive this season, but Rivera noted that they can be drawn in by play action. If the Panthers can get some semblance of the running game established, you might see some pretty nice plays by the Panthers receiving core.
For the past 3 games, one thing is odd but apparent: The Panthers haven't been able to run the ball well when Stewart doesn't play. I, for one, really have no idea why this is, but it seems to be apparent that Stewart's change of pace and running style is key to running success for the Panthers. Williams and Stewart are still one of the best groups of backs in the league, and they will need to be able to try and get the run game going. Most likely, the Panthers won't be able to go 3 and out many times and still have a shot at winning the game. The way to win this game is to run the ball, exercise the game plan, and minimize the possessions by the Falcons offense. Now, one saving grace for the Panthers here is that the Falcons rush defense is not on par with their pass defense. The Atlanta rush defense is ranked 24th overall in the league, and the Panthers will need to exploit this in order to keep the game close. But, the Falcons have a relatively young group of linebackers, sporting Sean Weatherspoon, who was a 16 game starter for the Falcons last season at outside linebacker. The defensive line could cause problems for the running game as well, but if the Offensive line can win the trench battle we might see some rushing success here.
Chris Gamble vs. Roddy White/Julio Jones
Its really hard to tell who exactly is the number one receiver on the Atlanta Falcons offense. One one end, you have the multi-year pro bowler in Roddy White, who has tangled with Gamble many times and is always a threatening receiver. On the other, you have the young stud in Julio Jones who can change the game in just one play. Most likely, Gamble won't be locked in on any single one of them all game. The Falcons will undoubtedly try to take advantage of the Josh Norman matchup, and they probably will see some success there. Gamble will need to really step up and play well against whoever lines up opposite him in order to keep the game under control. Because if both corners are giving up big plays, its tough for the Panthers to win this game.
There is one thing we do know about Matt Ryan, and really most quarterbacks in the NFL. If a defense can get after him and disrupt the pocket, Matt Ryan will come back down to earth. If the Panthers cannot get after him, Ryan will, continue putting up impressive numbers and this game could get ugly quick. The Atlanta Falcons certainly have respect for Charles Johnson, and won't let him have many one on one matchups. One saving grace here is that Frank Alexander has been a pleasant surprise, leading the Panthers defensive line in blocked passes and has been able to get some pass rush over the season. Greg Hardy, Alexander, and Thomas Keiser are going to need to get all the rush they can, especially without situational-pass-rusher Antwan Applewhite (who is listed as doubtful).
Carolina Panthers vs. Injuries
The biggest concern defensively for the Panthers is the size of the injury report. While Chris Gamble, Thomas Keiser, and offensive components in Byron Bell and Jonathan Stewart are alll probable, we have Greg Hardy, Thomas Davis, and Jon Beason all listed as questionable, with Applewhite doubtful as previously stated. How the Panthers handle these injuries could directly affect the outcome of the game. For one, if Jon Beason doesn't play, Luke Kuechly will not be moved to MLB. For most of us, the logical movement here would be to put Kuechly at Mike while Thomas Davis takes over at Will (if he even plays also). But Rivera appears to believe that Kuechly still should see work at his usual position, so the Panthers may instead elect to give preseason standout Jason Phillips the start at Mike.
In addition to that, Greg Hardy has an injured hand. While it looks like he will play, the Panthers will be considerably thin at defensive end with Applewhite also out. We will probably see Thomas Keiser shuffled in more as a result, and will also see a healthy dose of Frank Alexander. This could become a "next man up" type game, and as the Giants demonstrated last Thursday, the best teams find a way to win with injuries. The Panthers will need to try to do this as well.