By Zach Goins
Photo: Brandon Todd / Carolina Panthers
October 9, 2020
Hardly anyone outside the walls of Bank of America Stadium expected the Panthers to be competitive this year. With a new head coach, revamped roster and a competitive division, this was set to be a rebuilding year. Now, four games in Carolina is sitting at 2-2 and just a half-game out of first place in the NFC South.
This week’s matchup in Atlanta could go a long way in determining that race for the NFC South crown. The Falcons are off to a rough start at 0-4, and their reputation for blowing big leads hasn’t exactly improved this year. In Week 2 the Falcons led the Cowboys by 15 points late in the fourth quarter, yet the game still slipped away, then again in Week 3 a 16-point lead over the Bears vanished in the games final six minutes.
Carolina hasn’t won on the road in Atlanta since 2014, and the Falcons have emerged victorious in each of the last five matchups between the teams, so don’t let an 0-4 record trick you into thinking Sunday will be a cakewalk for the Panthers.
Here’s what to watch for this week against the Falcons:
The Falcons are desperate
If the 0-4 record didn’t give it away already, the Falcons are in dire need of a victory. Just last week, the Texans parted ways with head coach Bill O’Brien after starting the season with four straight losses, and Falcons head coach Dan Quinn may not be far behind him if things don’t get on track. With that being said, Quinn is likely coaching for his job, so expect him to throw everything he’s got at the Panthers. Trick plays, fourth downs, onside kicks, you name it.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule knows better than to overlook the Falcons simply because of their record, though.
“I have a lot of respect for Coach Quinn and his team,” Rhule said. “Matt Ryan’s an iconic, tremendous player, Julio Jones, (Calvin) Ridley, Todd Gurley. There’re just too many great players to mention.”
A desperate team paired with a dangerous offense could spell trouble for Carolina. Despite the winless record, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has had Atlanta’s offense in gear this season, averaging 294.3 net passing yards per game to rank fifth in the NFL.
Wide receiver Calvin Ridley ranks eighth in the league with 349 yards, and is tied for third with four touchdown catches. Meanwhile, perennial Pro Bowler Julio Jones has been battling a hamstring injury on and off throughout the start of the year. Jones’s status for Sunday is up in the air, as he’s missed two practices this week in Atlanta.
Can the Panthers take advantage of Atlanta’s poor defense?
On the flip side, Atlanta’s defense is not so hot– particularly in the secondary. To be exact, the unit ranks second-to-last in the NFL when it comes to passing defense, giving up 341.5 yards per game through the air.
Part of that is due to seven Falcons defenders on the injury report, including safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen. Up front, pass rusher Takkarist McKinley has been out, too, allowing opposing quarterbacks plenty of time to throw. According to Panthers wideout DJ Moore, the injuries have impacted how Carolina breaks down film.
“Just watching the film, you see a lot of rotation of guys,” Moore said. “We really don’t know who’s going to be in there, so we’re just game planning for coverages. Just knowing when we get out there, who we see is who we watched on film, so you’ve got to know how to attack that DB that’s out there.”
Carolina has proven itself to have a potent offense, ranking fourth in the league in rushing yards per game (116.3) and eighth in net passing yards (274.0). They’ll have plenty of opportunities to attack on Sunday.
Expect a big game from the tight ends
Panthers tight end Ian Thomas scored his first touchdown of the season last week, and he could be in for more this Sunday.
While the Falcons defense has struggled in general against the pass this season, they’ve especially struggled to contain opposing tight ends. Last week, Packers tight end Robert Tonyan led Green Bay with six catches for 98 yards and three touchdowns, and the week prior, Bears tight end Jimmy Graham totaled six catches for 60 yards and two touchdowns.
“Ian’s a central part of what we’re doing,” Rhule said of Thomas. “What I like about our offense right now is that you can’t point to any one guy. It’s kind of going around to everybody.”
Thomas and fellow tight end Chris Manhertz haven’t exactly stood out as electric playmakers in the absence of longtime Panther Greg Olsen, but Sunday could be their coming out party. Rhule certainly hopes to see some growth.
“To me, Ian’s growth is all based upon him. He’s playing better and better and better each week,” Rhule said of Thomas. “I just think for him, he just needs reps, he needs to play. It’s the nuances and the subtleties of playing the position that we’re trying to put in his repertoire.”
Panthers depth at running back
Everyone knows Christian McCaffrey is still on the mend– and the Panthers have done just fine in the two games without him– but the running back position got a bit dicier this week. Early in the week, now-backup running back Reggie Bonnafon was also placed on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain.
Veteran Mike Davis has been impressive taking the majority of the snaps with CMC sidelined, but Bonnafon provided an exciting change of pace and a much-needed break for Davis on occasion.
Now, the backup duties fall to Trenton Cannon, a third-year player signed off waivers from the Jets in the preseason. Cannon played on special teams in the Panthers first two games, but has since been inactive.
It seems the Falcons have always been Carolina’s “rival.” Maybe it’s the proximity between Atlanta and Charlotte or the fact the teams are divisional foes, but is the rivalry real, or just a forced narrative?
“I haven’t heard anybody talk about the rivalry since I’ve been here,” Moore said. “For the three years I’ve been here, I ain’t never heard that it was a rivalry. I just know we got to get a win.”
To be honest, it’s hard to consider something a rivalry when one team’s wins are as lopsided as the Falcons have been. All time, the Falcons lead the series 32-18, including the last five straight and 10 of the last 12 in Atlanta.
Moore is right– Carolina’s got to get a win.
The Panthers take on the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, October 11 at 1 p.m. on Fox.