Yesterday, I had the opportunity to sit down with Cat Crave’s editor Ken Dye, and talk a little about the Falcons matchup with the Panthers this afternoon.
Blogging Dirty- Coming into the Week 14 matchup between these teams, what is the Carolina Panthers fans impression of the Falcons as a team?
Cat Crave- I can only speak for myself on this. No offense, but I think the Falcons are slightly over-achieving this season. You know about the first Carolina game where we thoroughly outplayed you and in typical fashion we beat ourselves. The Falcons have had several other very, very close games…but then again in my mind, that’s exactly what championship teams do. Even the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins had to win a couple of games in the last two minutes. Julio Jones is the 21st Century version of Paul Warfield if you want to compare the teams. At any rate, I see a team with as good talent as anyone at the skill positions on offense, and the offense is high-octane enough to cover up the ONE weakness I see in the Falcons – the rush defense. I feel if you hold the Falcons’ offense to under 30 points, you’ve done a pretty decent job.
BD- The Panthers have been publicly criticized for spending a fortune on their backfield at the expense of other parts of their roster. What are your impressions of that situation, and do you anticipate and salary dumping moves from the backfield in the upcoming offseason?
CC- Ohhh yeah. When we fired GM Marty Hurney 6 weeks ago, that sent the signal that nobody’s job was safe. $90 million buys a nice backfield, but does a team really need to spend so much cap space in the offensive backfield? If I had to guess, I think DeAngelo Williams would be the odd man out. He has little “wear” on his body for his age and his breakaway ability would probably attract interest for a 3rd or 4th-round pick just to get rid of his part of the salary hit eventually. We just picked up Mike Tolbert in the offseason this year. I just wish we’d do more hit-em-in-the-mouth run-blocking instead of this finesse read-option stuff. That’s fine for a guy like RG3, who spent 4 years running it at Baylor, but Cam came into the NFL more raw. I’d like to see that RB talent put to work cramming it down the throats of opponents and saying to them “stop us” rather than some of what we’ve been doing. Never have been a fan of pitching the ball…too many things to go wrong.
BD- What are your thoughts on Steve Smith this season? Do you think he is finally slowing down, or do you think offensive play-calling and defenses adjustments against him are the biggest reasons for his less than stellar season?
CC- Yeah, he’s finally lost a step, but the man’s strength is, well, his strength. The entire offense has been in a funk and there’s blame all around for that, including some dropped passes by Smith and other wideouts. Brandon LaFell dropped a sure 6 points last week, which probably was the difference in the game. But Steve Smith is now 33 but still has a few good, productive years in front of him. I LOVE the way he plays with SUCH intensity…every game he gets caught really engaged in a block with a corner and it borders on a UFC match almost. It’s kinda funny to see each week who is gonna tick him off and get locked up with him. But as I said, yeah, he’s lost a step, but I think he’s the strongest WR in the NFL bar NONE despite his 5’9″ package. His leaping is still there and with his strength and balance, he can often win that fight and stay on his feet to extend the play, so he plays a lot bigger than his size would suggest.
BD- In this season of tremendous turmoil for Carolina, what bright spots have you seen?
CC- On offense, there are few. The aforementioned Brandon LaFell is a possession-type guy who has made some key first-down receptions for us this year….he just had a mental lapse on that one play last week. TE Greg Olson has had a good year and is a nice threat for that position. However, the biggest bright spot is the guy I was hoping the Panthers would draft in April – MLB Luke Kuechly. He’s a guy who was 14 tackles shy of the NCAA all-time record and did it in three seasons(!!) The kid was born to play MLB and we got us a perennial pro-bowl MLB that should star for us for at least a dozen years. The guy is the prototype in every way and has no weaknesses and that’s rare. Rookie corner Josh Norman has made his share of mistakes, but as a late-round pick he’s really grown into playing in the NFL and has a bright future, I think.
BD- What defensive players do the Falcons need to keep an eye on this week?
CC- Luke Kuechly for certain. I expect the Falcons to run some misdirection plays to try to capitalize on his youth and inexperience, but Kuechly’s instincts are unmatched. He’s also as good a pass defender (as far as MLBs go) in zone coverage and turning out to be a bit of a ball-hawk, it appears. So far, there’s really nothing he cannot do. Jacquizz Rodgers better keep an eye out for the guy because we’ll be hearing his name a lot in stopping the run. Believe it or not, Kuechly is 3rd in the NFL in tackles. He’s got speed to go sideline to sideline and the power to stand up running backs. I’m really high on this kid.
Otherwise, SS Charles Godfrey, while nothing particularly special, has come up with several sneaky-smart interceptions on short/intermediate passes by jumping the route, so he’s more of a cagey veteran. Our LB corps is as good as anyone’s in the NFL, even with Jon Beason on IR. DE Charles Johnson is putting up a pro bowl-caliber season, and we’ve got several good pass rushers off the edges in our 4-3. Rookie Frank Alexander doesn’t start, but is in that rotation. Our front-seven really is our strength, other than injuries and ongoing issues at DT which are part of the problem we’ve had stopping the run. Kuechly can’t do everything but he helps. So, watch out for him against the run or screens and our DEs in the passing game….as well as D’wan Edwards, a DT with 6 sacks.
BD- What is your prediction for the outcome of the game?
CC- After last week when we couldn’t beat a 1-win franchise that had probably hit the low point in their entire history the day before with the very sad Belcher saga, I just can’t pick the Panthers to win despite the way we man-handled you guys in the first game. Cam gave you guys a gift, and our FS, Haruki Nakamura, has a vertical leap that’s several inches high…he looks more like a fullback playing FS. Hopefully, we can get a consistent ground game going early to keep Ryan & co off the field. If we can do that, we might keep it close but we’ve not played well at home, either. This game should tell us if the Panthers have any fight left in them whatsoever. I think Rivera’s done after the season unless he dominates and wins every remaining game, which I can’t see.
Falcons 34, Panthers 16