Panthers vs. Falcons: Takeaways from Atlanta's 21-20 Loss to Carolina

Aaron Freeman@falcfansContributor IDecember 29, 2013

Panthers vs. Falcons: Takeaways from Atlanta's 21-20 Loss to Carolina

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    Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

    The Atlanta Falcons finished their 2013 with a disappointing 21-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

    The Falcons had opportunities late in the game to take the lead, but breakdowns along their offensive line prevented them from taking advantage. It marked the final game in the illustrious 17-year career of tight end Tony Gonzalez, and it's unfortunate that the Falcons couldn't send him off in style with a win.

    Atlanta's record falls to 4-12 as they finish a very underwhelming 2013 season. The Falcons entered the season with Super Bowl aspirations, but instead became one of the weaker teams in the league thanks to injuries and inconsistent play. There will be opportunities for growth in 2014 as they evaluate their team, using both positive and negative assessments from the season finale to do so.

Offensive Line Costs Falcons a Win

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    Down 21-20, the Falcons had two possessions in the final four minutes of the game to try to steal the win. But they failed to take advantage, largely due to breakdowns on the offensive line.

    On their penultimate offensive possession, the Falcons had a three-and-out thanks to a pair of sacks by Mike Mitchell and Charles Johnson. Those sacks marked the eighth and ninth of the game for the Panthers, season highs for both teams. The last time the Falcons gave up that many sacks in a game was in 2001. The sacks forced the Falcons to punt at the two-minute warning in hopes of getting a quick defensive stop. 

    They did get that stop, but wound up burning all three of their remaining timeouts to do so. That gave them another chance with 1:20 left on the game clock. But after moving the ball 31 yards to get near midfield, center Joe Hawley snapped the ball before Matt Ryan was ready with 31 seconds left in the game. Jason Snelling fell on the loose ball to prevent the turnover, but not before the Falcons lost 16 yards.

    That play killed any chance they had to set up a game-winning field goal from Matt Bryant in the final seconds.

    Upgrading the offensive line will be a big priority for the Falcons as they head into 2014.

Matt Ryan's Fast Start Slows Down

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    Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan got off to a fast start against the Panthers by completing eight of his first nine passes for 67 yards and a touchdown. But he hit a snag in the second quarter, where he completed just six of 12 passes for 48 yards and an interception.

    That turnover resulted in a pick-six for Melvin White after Ryan had a miscommunication with wide receiver Harry Douglas. That score breathed life into the Panthers after a sluggish start.

    Ryan came out stronger in the second half, completing 14 of 19 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown. But the pressure prevented Ryan from faring better, as he was dropped five times for sacks in the second half.

    While Ryan finishes the season with strong production, marking career highs in completions and attempts, it was the career-high 17 interceptions that stand out more.

    Ryan finished 2012 knocking on the door to become one of the league's elite quarterbacks, but looked much more mundane for large parts of 2013. A lot of that can be blamed on injuries to wide receivers and poor blocking up front, two issues that plagued the Falcons on Sunday against the Panthers.

    Atlanta will look to correct those issues in the hopes that 2014 is another ascendant year for Ryan.

Roddy White Plagued by Dropped Passes

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    Falcons wide receiver Roddy White had a number of dropped passes, which contributed to some of the troubles that plagued the Falcons aerial attack.

    White had a critical third-down drop in the red zone that forced the Falcons to settle for a 37-yard field goal from Matt Bryant in the fourth quarter. The Falcons were down 21-17 at that point, and a conversion on that play could have allowed Atlanta to cap off a long drive with a touchdown and retake the lead. Instead, they remained down one point with seven minutes remaining in the game.

    White finished with four drops, as he just didn't seem able to hang on to the football throughout the game. The drops, however, didn't stop White from leading the team with both eight catches and 91 yards receiving. He made an excellent catch on a 39-yard touchdown strike in the third quarter.

    White won't be in danger of losing his position next year thanks to plans to extend his contract this offseason, but the multiple drops punctuate a disappointing season. After six consecutive seasons where he eclipsed 80 catches, 1,000 yards receiving and six touchdowns, White finishes an injury-plagued 2013 with 63 catches for 711 yards and three scores.

Steven Jackson Runs for Tough Yards

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    Falcons running back Steven Jackson's stat line looks unimpressive with just 41 rushing yards on 13 carries. It caps off an unimpressive season for Jackson where he finished with a career-low 543 rushing yards.

    But Jackson did do some nice things in the passing game against the Panthers, as he caught five passes for 53 yards. He also made a few key short-yardage conversions in the game to extend Falcons scoring drives. On the team's opening possession, his 17-yard run on 3rd-and-1 set up a score by Jason Snelling three plays later. That play followed a 17-yard completion on a checkdown on 3rd-and-2 earlier in the drive.

    Then in the fourth quarter, he converted a critical 4th-and-1 with a five-yard run to keep the Falcons drive going. Unfortunately, the Falcons were only able to finish with a field goal after Roddy White dropped a pass on their next third-down try.

    Recent reports suggest the Falcons fully plan for Jackson to return to the team in 2014. Even though this overall season signaled that Jackson is no longer a top-level running back in this league, his performance against the Panthers indicates he still can perform a valuable role for the Falcons as a physical runner and receiver in critical situations.

Gonzalez Goes out with Class

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    Even though it was a modest catch for nine yards, it was fitting that Matt Ryan's final completion of the 2013 season was to tight end Tony Gonzalez.

    That reception marked the only catch for Gonzalez in a quiet second half in his final game in the NFL after 17 highly productive seasons. Gonzalez had a strong first half, however, leading the team with three passes for 47 yards.

    The Falcons pulled out all the stops for Gonzalez, honoring him throughout the game for his dedicated service even with the Falcons' disappointing season.

    Things did not go according to plan for Gonzalez, who was talked out of retirement a year ago to attain a Super Bowl ring. With injuries to other Falcons receivers, Gonzalez found himself as the primary target in a struggling offense. That turned a lot of attention toward Gonzalez, despite which he caught 83 passes and led the team with eight touchdown receptions on the year.

    The team's treatment of Gonzalez only reflected what the tight end had shown the organization throughout his five seasons in Atlanta. Despite midseason rumors that Gonzalez could be traded, per The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter, the veteran tight end opted to stick it out and honor his commitment to the Falcons.

Lack of Pressure Leads to Panthers Resurgence

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    The Atlanta Falcons pass rush started strong with some pressure that led to early struggles by Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

    Newton completed just one of his first seven pass attempts for eight yards and an interception. He was sacked once by Paul Worrilow at the end of the first quarter, after taking an earlier shot from Worrilow on the opening possession. The pressure seemed to affect Newton somewhat, as he was high on a number of throws, including the William Moore interception resulting from a tipped ball off the hands of wideout Domenik Hixon.

    But the Falcons pass rush dried up after that point, as Newton had little issue completing 14 of his final 20 pass attempts for 141 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Several times Newton had lots of time to find open receivers, and any early-game jitters he had were eliminated. Newton's scrambling ability also helped get him out of his funk, as he led the Panthers with 72 yards rushing.

    The Falcons pass rush has been a major problem throughout the season and will be a priority area to attempt to upgrade in the offseason.

Secondary Pulls Its Weight

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    Despite little help from the guys up front, the secondary played well for Atlanta.

    The Panthers were without top wideout Steve Smith due to a knee injury, and the Falcons' young corners proved more than a match for Carolina's remaining wide receivers.

    Brandon LaFell was held without a catch on five targets. Ted Ginn got the start as a replacement for Smith and caught just two passes for six yards on five targets. However, one of those catches was a three-yard touchdown.

    The only really effective receiver for Carolina was tight end Greg Olsen, who led the team with six catches for 42 yards and a touchdown. His score came on a play where Newton had too much time in the pocket, and the secondary can't be blamed for its inability to cover Olsen for that extended period of time.

    It capped off a promising year for the Falcons secondary, which saw the introduction of two rookie cornerbacks in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. Alford made a huge play in the game that prevented a score, stripping DeAngelo Williams from behind after a 56-yard catch-and-run. It was fitting that Trufant fell on the loose ball.

    The Falcons will likely move forward with Trufant and Alford starting next season, as the two were among several young defenders who emerged despite a poor overall season by the Falcons defense.

Paul Worrilow Finishes Year Strong

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    Another young defender who was able to step up this season was middle linebacker Paul Worrilow.

    Worrilow had an unlikely rookie season, joining the Falcons as an undrafted free agent out of Delaware. He had an excellent preseason to earn a roster spot and soon found himself as a starter due to an early injury to outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. Worrilow filled in ably on the outside before poor play by Akeem Dent prompted a midseason move to middle linebacker.

    Worrilow's performance on Sunday against the Panthers signified the sort of production that has been regular throughout 2013. He led the team with 13 tackles and outshone a Defensive MVP candidate in Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who had 10 tackles. Worrilow added a sack and a quarterback hit in the first quarter to pad his numbers.

    The Falcons defense struggled throughout 2013 thanks in part to injuries like that suffered by Weatherspoon. But out of that void emerged young linebackers like Worrilow and Joplo Bartu who were able to step up and shore up holes. Despite his lowly status entering the season, Worrilow outpaced all rookies except the Buffalo Bills' Kiko Alonso with 127 tackles.

    It gives Atlanta something to build upon next year as it looks to shore up other holes in the defense. There shouldn't be any questions going into 2014 whether Worrilow deserves to be the team's starter in the middle.