Matt Ryan Is Panthers' Number One Target
Falcons' QB Matt Ryan accidentally made himself a target in the closing seconds of the Falcons' last-second win over the Panthers earlier this year. After a patented last-minute comeback, Ryan was far more fiery than usual. As time expired, Ryan shouted for the Panthers to get off his field. The comment was caught on camera, including the expletive.
While much worse is said on the field, the Panthers were more than slightly offended. Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy was not shy about his intentions.
"They have a quarterback who is going to be on the ground because that's where he belongs."
As reported by ESPN, Hardy tossed around words like "payback" and "punishment." While he displayed contempt for the Falcons as a team, he seemed particularly focused on Ryan. Hardy made it clear when he said, "(Ryan) likes to hold the ball and that's something he should do when you're coming to play the Carolina Panthers because it's going to have repercussions. "
Hardy Not Alone
Hardy's fellow defensive end Charles Johnson was equally vocal about the Panthers' intent to punish Ryan and the Falcons. Johnson admitted the loss has nagged at him this year. Johnson hit Ryan early and often in the teams' first meeting. He is even more motivated now, saying, "Now he has to come into our house."
The Falcons and Panthers have physical games like most division rivals. The upcoming game was a dangerous spot for the Falcons to begin with. The Panthers' open admission to gunning for Ryan adds a new layer of peril for the Falcons' late season push.
How Will Falcons Respond
It is hard to predict how the Falcons will scheme for Panthers "payback." It is possible the offense could become conservative and run max protect for the majority of the game. The game is in no way a "must win" for the Falcons, and protecting their quarterback is paramount to any possible postseason success.
Do not look for that happen.
Mike Smith has always been vocal about Matt Ryan's toughness. Smith also hails from a defensive background and is not easily intimidated. Look for Smith to use the target on his quarterback's back to motivate his squad in an otherwise meaningless game.
The Panthers have made it clear they are looking for a fight. It remains to be seen if the Falcons will bring the fight to them.