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Panthers vs Falcons defensive preview: The defense needs a strong bounce back

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A struggling Panthers defense needs to recapture its mojo against an explosive Falcons offense.

Carolina Panthers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

It’s starting to look like the 2019 version of the Carolina Panthers defense isn’t so different than the 2018 version after all. Last year’s defense started the year strong but progressively got worse as the year went along. This unit seems to be doing the same thing, only this time they’re buoyed by a very good pass rush and an increase in turnover luck.

The apparent trade off for the increase in splash plays is a run defense that couldn’t stop you or me from popping off a respectable four yards per carry. I’ve long advocated that run defense isn’t important, but there is a limit to that. You can’t let your opponents repeatedly pick up huge chunks of yards on runs. That’s what the Panthers are doing.

Since their bye week, the Panthers have given up 516 rushing yards in just three games. Opponents have found pay dirt via the ground a whopping ten times and are averaging exactly six yards per carry in that stretch. Sacks and turnovers are cool and all, but you’re never going to get the chance to make those plays if your opponent can pick up a first down literally every other carry.

You’d think a home game against an Atlanta Falcons team with a damaged rushing attack would be the perfect remedy for this defense. It’s not. Devonta Freeman is likely out with a foot sprain (we know how tricky those can be), but he’s struggled all year. His absence is a non-factor. His backup is Brian Hill. That’s a factor.

If you remove one particular game from the annals of NFL history, Hill would have taken 51 carries for 180 yards, a paltry 3.5 yards per carry. The one game that’s missing? Well that’s Week 16 of 2018, where Hill took eight carries against these very same Panthers for 115 yards in Bank of America stadium.

The Panthers need to get back on track. Here’s how they do that:

  • Maintain gap discipline and clean up the big plays in the running game. Billy covered this in more detail in his film room piece. The Panthers are playing undisciplined and missing tackles, and it’s leading to all sorts of big runs. Ron Rivera thinks it’s mostly okay.

The problem is that the handful of big-yardage plays are like, most of the run plays. Since the bye week, the Panthers have stopped 18 runs for zero or negative yardage. They’ve allowed the same number of runs (18) to go for ten or more yards. 41% of hand offs in that time have gone for either a first down or a touchdown. It needs to be cleaned up.

  • Blanket Julio Jones. The Falcons will likely be without tight end Austin Hooper, who has become Matt Ryan’s safety net this season. Hill doesn’t seem to be a great pass catcher out of the backfield, so it’ll be up to Jones and Calvin Ridley to shoulder the load in the passing game. Julio is obviously the bigger threat of the two.
  • Hope the offense can put points on the board against a porous Falcons defense. The Falcons are the most pass happy team in the NFL, which plays into the strengths of the Panthers defense. They pass the ball on 69% of their plays, and that number climbs to 75% when they’re trailing after the first quarter. If the Panthers can get a lead, the Falcons may be quick to abandon the run. That’d make this game much easier to win.