Carolina Panthers vs. Atlanta Falcons: Panthers' Keys to the Game
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The Carolina Panthers (1-2) will visit the NFC South division-leading Atlanta Falcons (3-0) on Sunday following a 10-day hangover from their most recent game, a 36-7 loss to the New York Giants (2-1) last Thursday night, and they will do so with revenge on their minds and a chip on their collective shoulder the size of Stone Mountain.
The game will be a homecoming for Georgia natives Cam Newton, Mike Tolbert, Thomas Davis and Charles Johnson, and all four players will factor heavily into the outcome of the Panthers' third NFC South divisional game in four weeks.
The Panthers' season has gotten off to a rocky start marked by uneven performances in their first three games while the Falcons have quickly established themselves as one of the top teams in the NFL and the team to beat in the NFC South.
The Falcons came from behind in the fourth quarter twice against the Panthers last season, and they have won six of their last seven meetings with Carolina, including the past four in a row.
Atlanta leads the series with an all-time record of 22-12-0 against the Panthers.
Here is a look at the Carolina Panthers' keys to their Week 4 matchup with the Atlanta Falcons.
No. 1: Control the Line of Scrimmage
Amini Silatolu, Jordan Gross, Ryan Kalil and Geoff Hangartner. Photo by Jim Dedmon/Icon SMI
The Carolina Panthers' offensive and defensive lines have both failed to control the line of scrimmage in all three games this season, with the notable exception of the Panthers' offensive line during a dominant 219-yard running game against the New Orleans Saints in Week 2.
Carolina's defensive line only has five sacks in three games—3.5 from DT Dwan Edwards, 1.0 from rookie DE Frank Alexander and 0.5 from DE Thomas Keiser—and Carolina is 27th in the NFL (139.3 yards per game) at stopping the run.
The Panthers have allowed consecutive 100-yard rushing games from the Saints' Pierre Thomas (110 yards) and the Giants' Andre Brown (113 yards) after giving up 95 rushing yards to Tampa Bay rookie running back Doug Martin in Week 1, and their opposition only gets stronger this week.
Carolina's defense will face its toughest opposing back yet this weekend when they try to stop the NFL's third-leading rusher from a year ago, Atlanta's Michael Turner, and they will attempt to slow him down while trying to put pressure on the league's highest-rated passer (114.0) in Matt Ryan.
On the opposite side of the ball, the Panthers have to establish their own dominant running game to have a chance to hang with the Falcons.
The Panthers are 19th in the NFL in rushing (96.3 yards per game) despite running for more than 200 yards against New Orleans in their second game.
Though the Saints game is the only one in which Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart has played—and Stewart is expected to play this weekend—the common denominator in the Panthers' lackluster rushing performances has been poor play by the offensive line.
Rookie right guard Amini Silatolu needs to improve his play quickly, as do veteran Pro Bowlers Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross, who have struggled at times this season.
From Pee-Wee football all the way up to the pros, games are usually won and lost in the trenches, and the Panthers' offensive and defensive lines need to find a way to at least break even, if not control, both lines of scrimmage against the Falcons in order to have a chance.
No. 2: Win the Turnover Battle
Panthers safety Charles Godfrey (30) returns an interception for a touchdown against the Saints in Week 2.
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Carolina has turned the ball over eight times—five interceptions and three fumbles—in just three games so far this season.
The Panthers managed to recover two of their own fumbles in Week 1 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or else they would have double-digit turnovers by now.
Conversely, Carolina has just two takeaways on defense—both on interceptions thrown by Drew Brees—and zero on special teams, though the Panthers' rookie kick and punt returner, Joe Adams, fumbled the ball away on a kickoff return and a muffed punt in the second half against the Giants in Week 3.
Here is a telling stat if you have not read or heard it already: the Carolina Panthers are 0-12 in games in which Cam Newton throws an interception and 7-0 when he does not.
In other words, turnovers have killed the Panthers the past two seasons.
Granted, teams win football games in which their quarterback throws interceptions all the time, but the Carolina Panthers have not yet found a way to pull off that feat during the Cam Newton-Ron Rivera era.
I always like to preach that the Panthers are more likely to win when they run the ball more often than they pass, but the most common denominator in Carolina wins and losses the past two seasons has been the turnover battle.
Unfortunately for Panthers fans, it is a battle they have lost more often than they have won in recent seasons.
The task only gets more difficult for the Panthers this weekend with Atlanta leading the NFC in turnover ratio (plus-10) and Carolina tied with the Eagles in last place (minus-six).
Poor decision making on two of Newton's three interception passes in Atlanta last season ruined Carolina's chances of winning at the Georgia Dome after outplaying the Falcons in the first three quarters of the 31-17 Panthers loss.
Carolina has to find a way to at least break even in the turnover battle this weekend and Cam Newton must protect the football for the Panthers to improve their record to 2-2 and remain in the hunt for a shot at the NFC South divisional title.
No. 3: Contain Atlanta's Talented Receivers
Julio Jones (11) and Roddy White (84) are two of the NFL's most physical receivers.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Physical Falcons wideouts Julio Jones and Roddy White may be the NFL's most talented receiving duo, and Atlanta's future first-ballot Hall of Fame tight end, Tony Gonzalez, ain't half bad either.
With three dominant targets in the passing game, it is not difficult to understand why Matt "Matty Ice" Ryan is the league's highest-rated passer (114.0) three games into the season.
Jones and Gonzalez have scored three touchdowns apiece and White is 10th in the NFL with 244 receiving yards on 19 catches in three games.
Gonzalez (21 catches, 214 yards) will find himself in a mismatch nearly every time he lines up against a Panthers defensive back or linebacker with Thomas Davis being the only Carolina defender with a reasonable chance of covering him.
Jones and White also stack up well against Carolina's defensive backs.
Both players give Ryan big targets who can grab the ball in traffic, run well after the catch and burn defenders on the deep pass.
Chris Gamble has been solid, but not great, in coverage this season while the Panthers' other cornerback, rookie Josh Norman, has been repeatedly beaten by opposing receivers in the first three games.
Norman contributed to Giants' receiver Ramses Barden's breakout game (nine catches, 138 yards) in Week 3 and he is being battle-tested early and often this season by opposing quarterbacks.
Norman has the physical tools to be a great NFL cornerback, but without experience playing against high-level competition, the former Coastal Carolina Chanticleer has been attacked this season like a swollen eye in a prize fight, and Ryan will be sure to throw to his side of the field more often than not.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, their only other option at the position in Captain Munnerlyn, who experienced similar abuse from quarterbacks last season.
The Panthers' pass defense has particularly struggled on opening drives this season in which they have given up three 80-yard touchdown drives while allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 94.4 percent (17-of-18) of throws.
Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and head coach Ron Rivera will need to put all of their resources and experience to work in order to prevent the Falcons' aerial attack from turning the Georgia Dome into the landing strip at Hartsfield Airport on Sunday.
Otherwise, the Panthers' flight home will feel as long as a six-hour bus ride from Atlanta to Charlotte on I-85.
No. 4: Find the End Zone
Cam Newton (1) soared over the goal line for the Panthers' lone score against the Giants in Week 3.
The Panthers have scored six offensive touchdowns in three games this season, with four of them coming in Carolina's lone victory against the New Orleans Saints.
In Carolina's two losses, they reached pay dirt just twice. And it is not like they are kicking a ton of field goals because Justin Medlock has only kicked one all season: a 21-yarder against Tampa Bay in Week 1.
The Panthers' offensive ineptitude is alarming for a team that finished fifth in the NFL in scoring in 2011 and was expected to field a top-10 unit again in 2012.
However, Cam Newton's interceptions (5) and their lack of a consistent rushing attack—they only reached the red zone twice against the Bucs and once against the Giants— have kept them from sustaining long drives and reaching the end zone.
The Panthers will be hard pressed to find much success against a Falcons defense that forced four first-quarter turnovers at home against the Denver Broncos in Week 2 and that held the San Diego Chargers to three points on the road in Week 3.
However, Carolina led the Falcons through three quarters in both of their 2011 matchups and they will have to take the confidence they had heading into those games on the road with them this Sunday.
If the Panthers can establish the running game with DeAngelo Williams and a healthier Jonathan Stewart and get big plays out of Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell in the passing game, their chances of a victory in A-town will improve significantly.
No. 5: Eliminate Special Teams Mistakes
Joe Adams (15) fumbled the opening kickoff of the second half against the Giants in Week 3. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)
In Carolina's two losses this season, they allowed a blocked punt in the fourth quarter against the Bucs and Joe Adams fumbled a kickoff return and muffed a punt in the second half against the Giants.
The Panthers invested a lot of money, time and effort into improving their special teams during the offseason, in the draft and throughout the preseason and training camp.
Carolina drafted Joe Adams in the fourth round to create a much-needed spark in the return game.
Through three games, the Panthers are 30th in the league in kick return average (18.3 yards average) and 18th in punt returns (9.0 yards average), and Adams has turned the ball over twice.
Punter Brad Nortman was drafted in the sixth round to take Jason Baker's position and he beat out 12-year veteran Nick Harris in training camp.
Nortman is 29th in the NFL in punting (42.5 yards average) and he has placed only five of his 13 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Journeyman kicker Justin Medlock beat out 16-year vet Olindo Mare and he now handles all of the Panthers' kicking duties.
Medlock has only a 21-yard field goal and seven extra points to his credit and just 37-percent of his kickoffs (four out of 11) have resulted in touchbacks.
Veterans Mike Tolbert, Haruki Nakamura and Kenny Onatolu were brought over from other teams to improve Carolina's kick and punt coverage after the team allowed three punt returns for touchdowns in 2011.
The Panthers have improved their kick and punt coverage so far in the sense that they have not allowed a touchdown or a long return yet this season, but with three special teams mishaps in their first three games, you get the feeling that is coming, as well.
Carolina will need a spark from its special teams in order to have a chance to beat the undefeated Falcons on the road this weekend and they can absolutely not afford any of the miscues that have plagued them for the past two seasons.
Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the Carolina Panthers and the NFL on BleacherReport.com.
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