Atlanta vs. Carolina: 10 Keys to the Game for the Panthers

Stephen FenechCorrespondent IDecember 7, 2012

Atlanta vs. Carolina: 10 Keys to the Game for the Panthers

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    The Carolina Panthers will host the NFC South division leading Atlanta Falcons in Week 14.

    Cam Newton and the Panthers will play hard, as they will be looking to pull off an upset. The Panthers are trying to do anything to make this season appear to be anything other than a complete failure. 

    When the teams met in Week 4, the Falcons were able to come away with a tough-fought 30-28 victory. On that day, the Panthers were the better team but were unable to close out the Falcons on the road. 

    Matt Ryan and Roddy White were the Falcons' heros, as that duo connected eight times for 169 yards and two touchdowns. Panthers' fans had no choice but to flip off their television sets while shaking their head in disbelief after Matt Bryant's game-winning field goal sailed through the uprights. 

    While the loss was heartbreaking for the Panthers, their performance proved that they could beat one of the NFC's elite teams. 

    Here are the keys to this rematch between these two NFC South rivals. 

Get Pressure on Matt Ryan

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    The Carolina Panthers pass rush dominated the Atlanta Falcons offensive line front in Week 4, as Matt Ryan was sacked seven times.

    Ryan has only been sacked 22 times this season, with almost a third of those sacks coming in one game. 

    Charles Johnson had a monster game against the Falcons, as he sacked Ryan 3.5 times and pressured him on another couple of occasions. 

    When given time in the pocket, Ryan can be as lethal as any quarterback in the league. The Falcons have the weapons to light up the scoreboard, so it's imperative that Johnson and Greg Hardy get consistent pressure on Ryan. 

Keep Roddy White Under Control

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    In the first meeting between the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons this season, Roddy White hauled in eight passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns. 

    White was also the one who pulled down a Matt Ryan bomb with less than a minute left in the game, which put the Falcons within their field goal range.

    The Panthers will be counting on Captain Munnerlyn to cover White and they will need him to do a respectable job. The presence of Julio Jones makes defending the Falcons passing attack more difficult, as he also demands attention.

    White has not been the same receiver on the road, as he is still searching for his first touchdown away from the Georgia Dome. 

Take Care of the Ball

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    The Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons each turned the ball over once in their first matchup of the season. 

    The Falcons have a plus-seven turnover differential so far this season, while the Panthers are currently breaking even. 

    Turnovers are the great equalizer, so if the Panthers win the turnover battle on Sunday, then they will have a much better chance to hand the Falcons their second loss of the season.  

Slow Down Michael Turner

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    Michael Turner had his best game of the season against the Carolina Panthers in Week 4, as he ran the ball 13 times for 103 yards. 

    The Panthers were gashed by Turner through the air, as he caught three passes for 68 yards and found the end zone. 

    While Turner is on his last legs as the Atlanta Falcons premier back, you never would have known it based upon his early season performance against the Panthers. 

    The Panthers run defense has been poor this season, which means they have to worry about slowing down the heavy-footed Turner.

    If Turner has a good day on the ground, then the Falcons offense will dominate the time of possession battle and the game. 

Get the Running Game Going

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    The Carolina Panthers have averaged 4.2 yards per rush, which is ranked 15th in the league. 

    Cam Newton was the Panthers leading rusher against the Atlanta Falcons in their first matchup, as the Heisman Trophy winner carried the ball seven times for 78 yards. 

    While Newton is a talented runner, the Panthers would have been far better off if one of their running backs had led them in rushing. 

    Jonathan Steward and DeAngelo Williams have both been disappointing this season, as they have compiled just 695 yards and four touchdowns between them. 

    The Panthers entered the season as one of the favorites to lead the league in rushing, but that has not come to fruition. 

    The Falcons run defense has not been very good, as they are ranked 20th in the league against the run. If the Panthers can run the ball effectively, then they will be able to keep Matt Ryan and the Falcons explosive offensive attack on the sidelines. 

Continue to Be Efficient Inside the Red Zone

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    The Carolina Panthers have thrived in the red zone with Cam Newton under center, as it is the only offensive area in which the Panthers can stack up to the league's elite. 

    Newton is one of the league's most lethal red zone options, as his size and running ability make him a nightmare for opposing defenses. 

    According to TeamRankings.com, the Panthers offense is ranked fourth in the league in red zone touchdown scoring percentage. Only the New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are ahead of the Panthers in that category. 

    The Panthers scored on each of their three red zones against the Atlanta Falcons in their first matchup, which is a trend they will want to continue in Week 14. 

Get Steve Smith Involved Early

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    The Carolina Panthers offense is at its best when Steve Smith is involved in the passing game, as he draws the majority of the attention from opposing secondaries when he is on. 

    When Cam Newton and Steve Smith are in rhythm, Brandon LaFell and Louis Murphy tend to get open with ease. 

    Smith has converted for 35 first downs this season, so why wouldn't the Panthers want to get him the ball? 

    The coaching staff should know that Smith is the team's most explosive weapon outside of Newton, so hopefully Smitty will be targeted more than the six times he was against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4. 

Protect Cam Newton

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    The Carolina Panthers offensive line has struggled to keep Cam Newton upright this season, as he has been sacked 30 times. Only Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers have been sacked more this season. 

    The Atlanta Falcons sacked Newton three times in their first matchup, and I could see them getting to him that many times again this Sunday. 

    In the offensive lines' defense, Newton is prone to holding onto the ball for too long and has taken too many bad sacks this season. 

    Since Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil went down with a Lisfranc injury in Week 5, the play of the offensive line has deteriorated. 

    If Newton has the time to make plays, then the Panthers will be able to keep up with the Falcons' explosive attack. 

Play Well on Special Teams

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    The Carolina Panthers special team unit has been a nightmare this season. 

    Things have been so bad that the Panthers have changed kickers since the last time that they met the Atlanta Falcons. Graham Gano will be Carolina's kicker this weekend and he will likely play a large role in determining the outcome. 

    Joe Adams will handle the punt returns and Armanti Edwards will return kick offs, as both have shown flashes of excellence. 

    Punter Brad Nortman has improved in past weeks, although he still punting for his job in my opinion. 

    For the Panthers to upset the Falcons, the special teams unit must play a decent game. 

Take Care of Business During Crunchtime

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    The Carolina Panthers had the Atlanta Falcons dead to rights in Week 4, as Matt Ryan led the Falcons on a last minute field goal drive to win the game. Starting from his own 3-yard line and without timeouts, Ryan completed three passes including a miraculous bomb to Roddy White. 

    The loss to the Falcons is not the only game that the Panthers blew late, as they also collapsed against the Chicago Bears, the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    It has been beyond frustrating to watch each collapse, as the Panthers have the talent but struggle with closing out opponent's late in the game. 

    The late game meltdowns have been attributed to coaching lapses. The Panthers will not be able to hide behind that excuse much longer, as Ron Rivera is probably going to be relieved of his duties in the offseason.