Falcons vs Panthers Preview: Spooking Sam Darnold

Falcons vs Panthers

Rivalry games are my favorite part of the NFL. Throw standings out the window because things always get weird when two teams that hate each other square off. The best rivalry games are appointment viewing. Ravens vs. Steelers, Cowboys vs. Eagles, Packers vs. Bears, and, inside our division, Falcons vs. Saints generally make for good television. Despite being division rivals, Falcons vs Panthers doesn’t live up to that hype, at least for Falcons fans.

The swamp people will always be our favorite team to hate. With their fan base comprised of retired northerners and bandwagoners, the Bucs get a silver medal in the hate Olympics, especially with Tom Brady and their bought-and-paid-for title. When it comes to the Panthers, the best I can summon is a mild annoyance. 

I Don’t Think About You At All

Actual footage of me talking to Panthers fans.

That low-key apathy is one-sided. In my experience, Panthers fans hate us. My experiences represent a small sample size, but I’ve seen a deep, seething hatred from our little brothers from Charlotte. I mean, I get it. The hate is justified. The Falcons lead the series 33-19 and have won eight of the last ten games. If someone crossed my path twice a year and kicked my ass, I’d be mad too. 

Now isn’t the time to get comfortable, though. Atlanta is riding high following consecutive victories, but Carolina is still a dangerous team. We may be the big brother, but now and then, the little guy punches up. Sunday’s game is going to be one of the tougher matchups the Falcons have seen, and they’ll need to execute in all three phases to maintain their dominance over the Panthers.

Falcons Defense vs. Panthers Offense

This matchup won’t draw the most attention in the media, but the Falcons defense will play an outsized role in the outcome of this contest. The best way for Atlanta to overcome the Panther’s stifling defense is to win the time-of-possession battle. We will talk about how the Falcons can control the clock on offense in a bit, but the other side of that coin is potentially even more crucial. Atlanta has to step up against Sam Darnold and Carolina’s offense. 

Is This the Chuba Hubbard Breakout Game?

The offensive game plan from Joe Brady and Matt Rhule isn’t a secret. They want to run early and often to take the pressure off of Sam Darnold. With Christian McCaffrey on IR, rookie runner Chuba Hubbard will shoulder this responsibility. It’s a noticeable step down for Carolina, but Hubbard is a talented runner, and the Panthers will feed him if they’re able. Joe Brady called seven run plays during their first drive last week. They really want to run the ball. It will be up to Atlanta to quell those early attempts to dominate the line of scrimmage.

I’ve written about the concerns I’ve had about the Falcons’ ability to stop the run for several weeks straight. Like a doomsday prophet on a street corner, I find myself repeating the same warnings this week. Yes, I realize Atlanta is ranked ninth in rushing yards allowed, but raw production doesn’t tell the whole story. Atlanta is ranked 30th in the NFL in rushing success rate allowed at 47.1%. Anything above 40% isn’t good; close to 50% is terrible. When teams want to run the ball, they’ve faced little opposition from Atlanta. For various reasons, no team has leaned on the run game against the Falcons so far, which has helped prop up Atlanta’s defensive statistics. I suspect, however, that trend comes to an end this week.

Who Can Step Up?

The Falcons have to be ready to stop the run, particularly early in the game. Grady Jarrett is the only player on the active roster that’s consistently played above replacement level. Someone, anyone, has to show up on Sunday ready to make an impact. I’m hoping Mike Pennel gets time at nose tackle, if for no other reason than he offers much-needed size on the interior. Marlon Davidson and Ade Ogundeji are also candidates to step up this week. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but an improvement from Atlanta is vital. If Carolina is successful on nearly 50% of their run plays, it will put immense pressure on Atlanta’s offense to score every time they touch the ball.

Darnold Is Who He Is

Have you heard the old fable about the scorpion and the frog? The story starts with standing on the bank of a river needing to cross. The scorpion, unable to swim, needed help across, so he asked the frog to carry him. The frog was understandably hesitant but eventually agreed when the scorpion pointed out how futile it would be to sting him; they’d both surely die if he did. Alas, halfway across the river, the scorpion stung the frog. With his last breath, the frog asked why someone would so willingly embrace mutual destruction. The scorpion said, “I can’t help it. I’m a scorpion.”  

After enduring a season of stick-in-the-mud QB play from Teddy Bridgewater, the Panthers rolled the dice on Sam Darnold, hoping to unlock the potential that made him a high draft pick. Unsurprisingly, like the fabled scorpion, Darnold can’t be anything other than what he is, a lousy quarterback. The same issues that plagued him in New York have followed him to Carolina. He crumbles under pressure, an unfortunate trait to have when your offensive line is a sieve. He doesn’t read coverages well, and with seven interceptions in the last four games, is a walking JUGS machine for opposing DB’s.

If, and this is the biggest “if” of the game, the Falcons can stop the Panther’s rushing attack, Sam Darnold looks incapable of elevating the team around him. If Atlanta wants to shed the reputation of being the “get right” opponent, they can start this weekend by burying a quarterback that was benched for *checks notes* Phillip Walker last week.

It’s Not Just Darnold Falling Flat

Darnold is the easy scapegoat for the Panther’s offense, but, in fairness, he isn’t getting much support from his teammates. The Panther’s offensive line has been a disaster. They are in the top five in pressures and sacks allowed, which only exasperates Darnold’s shortcomings. Right tackle, Taylor Moton, is the lone bright spot among a dismal offensive line group that just placed starting right guard John Miller on IR. His replacement isn’t readily apparent, but none of the options available are promising. 

A team with a potent pass rush would have already written this game off as a win. The Falcons, well, they aren’t that team. We’ve all watched this team trot out an anemic pass rush for years, and there isn’t much reason to expect it to get better. However, if there is a game on the schedule ripe for a miracle turnaround, it’s this week. If Atlanta can delve deep and find a consistent pass rush, Darnold will crumble as he has over his entire career. 

But Wait, There’s More!

We’ve established the Panthers have massive issues at quarterback and along their line, but their receivers aren’t helping matters either. Carolina leads the NFL in dropped passes with 18, five more than the second-worst team. There aren’t many things more deflating than a dropped pass. It is exponentially more so when the offense struggles in so many other areas. 

That’s not to suggest the Falcons secondary can relax; Carolina has a dangerous set of receivers. We saw the Falcons’ secondary struggle toward the end of the Miami game, especially with AJ Terrell and Fabian Moreau sidelined with injuries. Thankfully, the entire secondary seems to be trending in the right direction to play this weekend. 

Atlanta’s Defense Is (Lowkey) the Key to the Game

How the Panthers attack the Falcons offense will likely be the more entertaining aspect of the game, but how Atlanta’s defense fares is likely to be more impactful. Carolina is ranked 30th in offensive DVOA, worse than everyone the Falcons have played aside from the Jets. Carolina’s inability to keep their defense off the field is a primary cause behind their four-game losing streak. If the Falcons jump on them early and control the game’s tempo, they have an excellent shot of extending their dominance over the Panthers.

Falcons Offense vs. Panthers Defense

Atlanta has enjoyed an offensive resurgence after a slow start to the 2021 season. Kyle Pitts has posted monster games in consecutive weeks, and Matt Ryan is looking awfully similar to the quarterback we saw in his 2016 MVP campaign. It hasn’t been perfect, nor has it been against premium competition, but this unit is playing well and improving every week. 

Protection is a Priority

The maligned offensive line for Atlanta has quietly put together consecutive games of allowing zero sacks. Though the pressure rates haven’t dipped, they’ve managed to give Ryan enough time to get the ball out. Jalen Mayfield still has plenty of “oh shit” moments, and no one on the line is great at run blocking, but this unit is doing enough to win games. It’s a slow progression, but each week they look a little better. This week, they face a formidable group of pass rushers, and further progression will be necessary to keep the offense moving.

Brian Burns has tormented us since the moment he walked in the door. Derek Brown and Daquon Jones are going to make life difficult for our young interior, too. Across the line, it’s hard to feel great about any of the matchups. That’s been the case all season, though, and lately, the Falcons have found a way to get it done. It’s been a heavy dose of scheme and a savvy quarterback, and that will have to continue to bear out again on Sunday. 

Scheme Early Successes

Arthur Smith has his work cut out for him. Carolina is a top ten defense in sacks and QB pressures, and they are the second most blitz-happy team in the league. Although the defense let them down, Atlanta fought through a similar situation against Washington, but the Panthers are better on the backend. Smith will need to find ways to create easy completions to get Ryan into a rhythm early. If they can keep the chains moving, the explosive plays will come, but failure on early downs will clip the Falcons’ wings entirely. 

Will Carolina Man Up?

The key to the game this week, and every week, is how defenses choose to defend Kyle Pitts. Early in the season, zone coverages thwarted Atlanta. Quick pressure on Ryan, and a lack of a speedy option outside, allowed defenses to force short passes, and the Falcons offense sputtered. Over the last few weeks, the Falcons have faced much more man coverage, and the offense blossomed. Carolina isn’t as man-heavy as the Jets or Dolphins, but they tend to prefer man, especially on third down. Atlanta has the weapons to exploit this tendency if they can protect Ryan.

There aren’t many teams in the NFL that have enough talent across the board to defend the Falcons in single coverage. Calvin Ridley may be off to a slow start, but he’s routinely won against single coverage. Kyle Pitts roasted everyone Miami lined up across from him, and Cordarrelle Patterson has been making fools out of linebackers and safeties all year. Up and down the roster, Atlanta can create mismatches against man coverage. Even players like Gage and Hurst are problems in single coverage. 

Panthers Have the Horses

I’m not underestimating Carolina, there are legitimate studs on their defense. Stephon Gilmore may make his debut for Carolina this week. Donte Jackson and AJ Bouye have played well, while Jeremy Chin can do most anything asked of him. Still, if Carolina tries to stay in man coverage, Matt Ryan will find the open man. There are three consecutive games worth of film proving that. I don’t expect that Carolina has missed that fact. The Panthers could choose to rush four and sit in zone, or they’ll ramp up their pressure packages, but either way, Atlanta has to be ready to keep Ryan clean. If the Falcons offensive line pitches another shutout, this offense will find a way to put up points. 

Special Teams Needs to Get it Together

As much as we’ve collectively groaned about the pass blocking, or the defense blowing leads in the second half, we haven’t talked enough about the special teams play in Atlanta. Koo is great, obviously, but the rest of this group needs to pull it together. This unit has failed to turn in a single clean game all year between shanked punts, blown coverages, and (almost) turnovers on punt returns. While a big return from Patterson or Williams would be incredible, I’ll settle for one game with no glaring errors. This week’s game is likely to be determined on the margins, and one mistake can be enough to swing the balance.

Who Wins in a Battle for Best of the Worst?

It’s clear this division is Tampa’s for the taking, but it’s wide open behind them. This week, a Panthers win keeps Carolina in the mix and gives their fans a rare win against a hated foe. A Falcons victory would be enough to get fans in Atlanta talking earnestly about wildcard positioning. It’s a battle to decide who is the best of the bad teams. Who keeps their playoff hopes alive, and who starts (or continues) firing off mock drafts? It’s a coin flip game, but I feel compelled by superstition to continue my trend of picking against the Falcons. I love being right, but if being wrong leads to W’s, I have no choice. It’s honestly the least I can do. Sam Darnold wins in a shootout and lives to fight another week.

Final Prediction: Carolina 35 – Atlanta 34

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