Atlanta Falcons vs. Carolina Panthers: Breaking Down Atlanta's Game Plan

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Atlanta Falcons vs. Carolina Panthers:  Breaking Down Atlanta's Game Plan
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This weekend the Atlanta Falcons make the short trip up I-85 this Sunday to take on the Carolina Panthers.  There shouldn't be much love lost between these two NFC South rivals. 

The Falcons narrowly defeated the Panthers 30-28 in Week 4 at the Georgia Dome last year, and Carolina returned the favor by winning comfortably in Charlotte late in the season.

Through eight weeks this year, the Panthers are in the thick of the wild-card hunt in the NFC, while the Falcons are searching for answers after an unexpected 2-5 start.

Let's preview Sunday's game by breaking down the offensive, defensive and special teams keys for the Falcons as they look to get their second divisional win this year in Week 9.

 

STATE OF THE PANTHERS

At 4-3, the Panthers are over .500 for the first time since they won the NFC South in 2008.  Defense has been Carolina's calling card, as the Panthers are second in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and 10th in the league in passing yards allowed.

Indeed, Carolina's front seven, led by defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson along with linebacker Luke Kuechly, may be more talented than the Arizona defensive front that whipped the Falcons last weekend. 

Offensively, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is completing nearly 65 percent of his passes while also being the catalyst for Carolina's eighth-ranked rushing attack.

While the Panthers are off to their best start in five years, they're still looking to quiet some critics who point to the fact that Carolina's four wins have come against the New York Giants (2-6), Minnesota Vikings (1-6), St. Louis Rams (3-5) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-7).

 

OFFENSIVE KEYS FOR ATLANTA

1.  BE PHYSICAL

There was a time when Atlanta's calling card under Mike Smith was its physicality, but the Falcons have seemed to want to be more of a finesse team over the last two-and-a-half seasons. 

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Since Atlanta's passing game won't be able for the remainder of the season to air it out to Julio Jones, the team needs to get back to being physical up front and hitting people in the mouth.

Carolina has been a blue-collar type team under head coach Ron Rivera, and the Falcons have to be ready to match that physicality if they're going to establish anything on offense against the Panthers.

 

2.  TAKE A COUPLE OF SHOTS DOWNFIELD

If Carolina's defense has a chink in its armor, its in the secondary.  While safety Mike Mitchell has been an upgrade on the back end, Carolina's defensive backs can be still be had.

The problem for opposing quarterbacks has been that they don't have time to get the ball downfield against the Panthers front seven.

Once Atlanta establishes its physicality up front, Matt Ryan needs to give Harry Douglas, Darius Johnson, Drew Davis or Roddy White (if he plays) a chance to get behind Carolina's secondary for a big play.

 

3.  DON'T GIVE UP ON STEVEN JACKSON

Jackson had a quiet day on the ground against the Arizona Cardinals (or loud if you count the "pop" from his pads as he was hit in the backfield on nearly every carry), but he didn't have a whole lot of room to work.

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If the Falcons are going to dig themselves out of this 2-5 hole, Jackson is going to have to be relevant in this offense. 

Getting Jackson 15-18 touches between running and catching flare routes out of the backfield isn't an overly ambitious goal for this offense.

 

4.  USE THE SCREEN GAME TO NEUTRALIZE THE CAROLINA PASS RUSH

Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson get after it coming off of the edge in passing situations. 

Ex-Falcons tackle Tyson Clabo really struggled with Johnson in the game at the Georgia Dome last year.

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The Falcons will almost certainly need to help out their tackles by calling some quick passes and screens to take advantage of Hardy and Johnson's aggressiveness and keep them from getting so far upfield.

 

5.  PLAY PENALTY-FREE FOOTBALL

Poor blocking was only part of the issue for Atlanta's offensive line last week against Arizona.  The Falcons put themselves behind the chains in down and distance too many times because of silly false-start penalties.

Getting into obvious passing situations against the Panthers front will get you beat quickly.

 

DEFENSIVE KEYS FOR ATLANTA

1.  NO BIG PLAYS

This has been a key for the defense just about every week this season, but this unit keeps allowing its opponents plays of 40 yards or more.

Falcons fans probably don't need to be reminded of Cam Newton's 72-yard touchdown run against their team in Charlotte last year, or DeAngelo Williams' 53-yard touchdown reception that put that same game away for Carolina.

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The Panthers have four players (Newton, Williams, Steve Smith and Ted Ginn Jr.) who can be game-breakers if they get a crease.

Atlanta simply can't allow a big play to blow open a close game like it did last week against Arizona, because the Falcons don't have the firepower to play catch up.

 

2.  KEEP FRESH BODIES IN ON DEFENSE TO HELP STOP THE RUN

In addition to DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert, Cam Newton is like another running back that opposing defenses have to deal with when they play the Panthers.  Jonathan Stewart may come back to the lineup this week too.

Stewart's return would mean four good ballcarriers for Atlanta's defense to tackle on Sunday.  Missed tackles have been a bit of an issue for the Falcons, so it would behoove them to have a healthy rotation along their defensive line to help battle the inevitable fatigue that will come from facing a physical Panthers offensive line.

 

3.  TAKE GREG OLSEN AWAY IN THE PASSING GAME

Steve Smith is going to make his plays, but the man who may deserve just as much attention as he does is Panthers tight end Greg Olsen. 

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Newton has targeted Olsen 42 times in seven games this year, and Olsen played well against the Falcons last season.  Olsen may not get the recognition that Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez get in this division, but he's a big part of this Carolina passing game.

The Falcons must find a way to neutralize him and force Cam Newton to find another number-two receiver to Steve Smith.

 

4.  KEEP CONTAIN ON THE EDGES

This is really a more specific key within our "No Big Plays" header.  The Falcons didn't keep contain on Andre Ellington's 80-yard touchdown run last week, and if they don't set and hold the edge against the Panthers, the same thing will happen this week.

Atlanta's young defensive ends and corners must be more disciplined in this area this week.

 

5.  GET THE BALL

Generating turnovers were a big part of the Falcons' regular-season run last year, but they haven't been able to duplicate that success in their second season under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

The Panthers aren't immune from turning the ball over, because earlier this month they had four turnovers against Arizona, just like Atlanta did.

Atlanta needs to pick its spots where it can be aggressive against this Panthers offense and force Cam Newton into a mistake or two.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS KEYS FOR ATLANTA

Atlanta's special teams units were the lone bright spot last week in Arizona when they recovered an onside kick and kept stud returner Patrick Peterson from taking one to the house.

Panthers receiver Ted Ginn Jr. is an explosive playmaker as a return man, so the Falcons coverage units need to play with the same focus that they had last week against Peterson.

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Alternatively, the Falcons may have found the right punt returner in cornerback Robert McClain.  If his blockers give him a crease, McClain could be an X-factor this week in the return game.

 

OUTLOOK

Carolina has developed an identity this season by excelling in three areas where the Atlanta has struggled: running the ball, stopping the run and rushing the passer.

If you do well in those three areas, you're going to be competitive in just about every NFL game you play.

The Falcons have to come out hitting against the Panthers on Sunday, or else they'll be in for a longer afternoon than the one they had last season in Charlotte.

 

All stats are via ESPN.com

 

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