Inside every football games, there are games within the game. These are matchups played between offensive and defensive units which affect the outcome of the game as a whole. For the NFC South matchup between the Falcons and Panthers, there are three crucial matchups to look at coming in. Here are the three most important ones:
1. Carolina DE Charles Johnson vs. Atlanta OTs Tyson Clabo and Sam Baker: The Panthers don’t possess a tremendous ability to rush the passer, but most of that pass-rush is wrapped up in the body of Charles Johnson. He’s not an elite defensive end, but he’s as close are it gets. RT Clabo and LT Baker will have their hands full protecting Matt Ryan from Johnson. If they can accomplish that task, Ryan will pick apart the secondary. If not, the Panthers could slow down this Falcons team.
2. Atlanta CB Asante Samuel vs. Carolina WR Steve Smith: This is going to be one heck of a matchup. Samuel has been very good throughout his career, but he has also developed a reputation for giving up the big play. That hasn’t happened this season, as he looks completely rejuvenated in a Falcons jersey, but Steve Smith is the epitome of a big play receiver, especially with Cam Newton at quarterback. If Samuel can contain Smith a good bit, and at the least prevent him from gashing the Falcons through the air, he will have done his job. That task is easier said than done, however. Smith is extremely competitive, and could go off at any moment. Unlike the Saints, the Falcons will have him accounted for on every play.
3. Falcons linebackers Sean Weatherspoon & Stephen Nicholas vs. Panthers QB Cam Newton: It’s no news to say that Newton is an extremely physical, dual threat quarterback. The key is that he is a dual threat, and often takes off running when his first read in the receiving corps isn’t open. The Falcons linebackers are going to have to be very active all day long: covering all options in the zone-read game that Newton likes to run so much, playing the simple run, and dropping into coverage to defend the pass. Not only that, but after dropping into coverage, being able to run downhill to tackle Newton if and when he decides to take off and run. Talk about overloading someone with tasks. This is going to be the most interesting matchup to watch. If they can make Newton throw the ball, the likelihood for him to turn the ball over increases big time. The key is stopping him if he decides to run. Best of luck to those two linebackers.