At the beginning of the season, most knowledgeable NFL viewers would have said that the Carolina Panthers would be a ground and pound style of team. With a rookie quarterback, the Panthers would hand the ball off to their two dynamic running backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and let Cam Newton sort of tip toe his way into the NFL. I wish that were the case. Carolina has surprised a number of people and teams around the NFL by ranking in the upper echelon in both passing yards per game (5th with 311.6 ypg) and total yards per game (5th with 428.2 ypg).
The Panthers, even with starting the season 1-4, are a very dangerous team offensively. Cam Newton, a peach state native, is one of the most exciting new players to watch. Even if that smile drives you crazy, and you are suspect about his past character, you cannot deny the fact that when the ball is in his hands, he is a threat to score. He has sparked life into the organization and its fan base when just last season they were the worst team in the league. Everyone around the NFL anticipated they would be in a rebuilding year. Some Panther fans even stuck their noses up to Newton when his name was called for the 1st overall pick in the NFL draft. Those nostrils have since leveled out I’m sure.
This poses an interesting predicament for the Falcons. I’m willing to say this is a “must win” game. After already losing one tight divisional game to the Buccaneers, the Falcons cannot afford to start the season 2-4, having already lost two divisional games. Plus, with the Packers and the Lions both undefeated, it is almost inevitable that at least one of the playoff wildcard spots in the NFC will come from the NFC north (if not both spots). Since we have already lost to the Bears, Packers (both NFC north teams) and Bucs (an NFC south team), we need to start making some headway toward this playoff push if it is going to be a reality. The Falcons are currently ranked third in the NFC south, and if we lose this game to the Panthers, we will be tied with them for last place in the division.
Due to injuries and lack of experience, Michael Turner should be running through the defensive line and linebackers of the Panthers like a bowling ball rumbling down a lane with bumpers. The holes should be open for business, much like if one were to pour water through a sieve.
The true key question for this Sunday’s game is this: Can the Falcons secondary keep Steve Smith and the passing attack in check for all 4 quarters of the game? The Falcons defense currently ranks 28th in the league in passing, giving up a whopping 294.2 yards per game. Aside from Brent Grimes, the secondary has been suspect at best. Duante Robinson, the Falcons highest paid defensive back (if you don’t count all of his league fines for hits), needs to stop pogo-sticking his body into wide receivers, and instead become the lockdown corner that we brought him in to be before he ends up concussed….again. He will more than likely be matched up the explosive veteran Smith, who is second in the NFL in receiving yards, averaging an astounding 121.8 ypg. Newton has proven that he already has the ability to pass the ball in this league because he can find Smith, but he has thrown two pick sixes in the past two weeks. Slowing down the passing attack will be crucial to the Falcons victory.
On a positive note, the Falcons rank 8th in the NFL in rushing defense. The line backing core has been the highlight of the season so far. Both Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon rank in the top four in the league in combined tackles. Weatherspoon (49 combined tackles on the year, ranking tied for 2nd in the NFL) has been digging up runners in the backfield, and planting them
like an adamant farmer. You’ve also got to love his celebration; shoveling mouthfuls of defenders with his imaginary spoon that dwells in his belt. He is the type of player the Falcons have been waiting for, and that’s exactly why they drafted him so high last season. His energy and playmaking abilities have fans across the country recognizing his skills.
The Panthers still pack a solid punch with their running game, combining the likes of Williams, Stewart, and Newton. In order for the Falcons to get back to their winning ways, the “spoon” must be active and hungry against the Panthers. Weatherspoon, Lofton,
and the rest of the defense need to be greedy tacklers, like they were in the first half of the Packers game. If the Falcons can sew a full game together defensively, and iron out their offense woes, look for the team to be sitting casually at 3-3 after Sunday.