WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
The premise of a rapidly-improved Carolina offense that ranks fifth in the NFL in total yards (428.2 ypg) is to get the ball in the hands of Newton (1610 passing yards, 7 TD, 6 INT) as much as possible, and it’s to argue with that philosophy. The dynamic rookie has produced at a clip of over 350 yards per game (322 passing, 32 rushing) and is as great a threat with his legs as with his rocket right arm. Newton’s arrival has also triggered a rebirth for veteran wideout Steve Smith (27 receptions, 3 TD), whose 609 receiving yards are the second-most in the league at the moment, and the fiery four-time Pro Bowler is averaging a tremendous 22.6 yards per catch on the year. Olsen (20 receptions, 3 TD) has emerged as Newton’s go-to guy in the red zone, with the offseason pickup notching a touchdown catch in three straight games, while fellow tight end Jeremy Shockey (14 receptions) provides another reliable underneath target for the NFL’s fifth-best aerial attack (311.6 ypg). The running game has also been operating near full throttle as of late, with Carolina following up a 169-yard output on the ground at Chicago in Week 4 with 162 rushing yards against the Saints last week. The backfield possesses a true home-run hitter in DeAngelo Williams (258 rushing yards, 1 TD, 7 receptions), who’s averaged a sizzling 10.4 yards per carry over the past two Sundays and ripped off a 69-yard touchdown in the New Orleans loss.
Preventing the big play has been a challenge for a disappointing Atlanta defense thus far. Opposing quarterbacks have averaged 294.2 yards through the air and 8.5 yards per pass attempt on the Falcons, both the fourth-worst figures in the league, with Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers shredding the unit for 369 yards and two scores a week ago. Those numbers are unfitting for a secondary that fields two established cornerbacks in 2010 Pro Bowl honoree Brent Grimes (25 tackles, 6 PD) and Dunta Robinson (22 tackles) and is backed by a usually capable pass rush headed by veteran sack artist John Abraham (8 tackles, 2 sacks), who sat out against the Packers but is expected back for Sunday’s game. Atlanta has been stiffer against the run, having yielded just 110 rushing yards combined over the previous two weeks. Linebackers Sean Weatherspoon (49 tackles, 1 sack) and Curtis Lofton (47 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PD) have spearheaded the team’s efforts in that department, while strong safety William Moore (22 tackles, 1 INT) is a physical in-the-box defender who’s status for this week is in question due to a shoulder injury.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
While the Panthers will be unveiling Newton before the hometown crowd on Sunday, Atlanta won’t have its high-impact rookie available for this game. Wide receiver Julio Jones (25 receptions, 358 yards), the team’s first-round pick in the 2011 draft, has been ruled out of the contest after straining a hamstring last week, and that could be a big blow to an offense that’s relied heavily on the pass in the early going. Slot man Harry Douglas (11 receptions) and return specialist Eric Weems will attempt to fill the void, but more than likely Ryan (1302 passing yards, 7 TD, 6 INT) will be more dependent on top target Roddy White (32 receptions, 352 yards, 2 TD) and ageless tight end Tony Gonzalez (27 receptions, 4 TD), who’s gotten his 15th NFL season off to an excellent beginning. It would also aid the Falcons’ cause if running back Michael Turner (360 rushing yards, 4 TD, 6 receptions) can rediscover a groove. After opening the year with two straight 100-yard performances, the powerful workhorse has averaged a pedestrian 49 yards and 2.8 yards per attempt over the past three weeks. The lack of a consistent ground game has put a strain on both Ryan and an offensive line that’s allowed 14 sacks to date, but is hopeful valued center Todd McClure can make it back from a lingering knee injury that’s limited him to just two starts this year.
Turner may be primed for a breakout against a Carolina defense that ranks a lowly 27th against the run (135.2 ypg) and was shredded for 224 rushing yards by Chicago two weeks back. Injuries to the linebacking corps have taken their toll on the group, with standout middle man Jon Beason and experienced outside starter Thomas Davis already lost for the season with injuries and Davis’ replacement, Omar Gaither (8 tackles), also out for the time being with a knee sprain. The Panthers do have two very good healthy pass rushers in ends Charles Johnson (16 tackles, 4 sacks) and Greg Hardy (21 tackles, 3 sacks), with the duo combining for seven of the club’s modest total of eight sacks. Those two will need to be in top form to protect a shaky secondary that’s surrendered a league-worst 8.7 yards per pass attempt and has little proven depth other than top cover man Chris Gamble (8 tackles, 4 PD) and free safety Sherrod Martin (24 tackles, 2 INT, 5 PD). The Panthers also haven’t been very good at forcing turnovers, having notched only five takeaways in five games.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Turnovers. The Falcons were one of the league’s stingiest teams in this area during last year’s 13-3 playoff run, but have been plagued by uncharacteristic miscues this season. Atlanta has given the ball away eight times and had a minus-four turnover ratio in its three defeats, but owns a plus-three margin in its two victories. Carolina, meanwhile, has lost all four games it’s been even or behind in that category and won the only time it came out ahead
Turner. The difference-making running back has rushed for over 100 yards in four of Atlanta’s last five meetings with the Panthers, and his team has won three of those contests in which he’s eclipsed that mark. Getting him unleashed should give the Falcons some much-needed balance on offense, especially with one of its top weapons in Jones missing in action.
Better defense. Both of these participants have been liabilities on that side of the ball, and their deficiencies have been reflected in the overall records of each. It’s especially important for the Falcons to step it up this week, as Carolina has displayed far more playmaking ability on offense than its divisional rival over the season’s initial stages.
Prediction – The Panthers keep playing well, but keep falling short. Last week they had the Saints on the ropes, but couldn’t close it out yet again. Now they play a Falcons team that at 2-3 is in a complete do or die situation. Here’s thinking the Falcons finally get it going, as Michael Turner and Matt Ryan lead their offense to a big win to get to .500. Atlanta 23 Carolina 17