The Elevator: Panthers Defense Allows Ryan, Falcons to Flourish

Austin PennyAnalyst ISeptember 21, 2009

ATLANTA - SEPTEMBER 20:  Quarterback Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers at Georgia Dome on September 20, 2009 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The Carolina Panthers suffered their second consecutive loss to open the 2009 season on Sunday, but did so in a manner that was far less depressing than their Week 1 debacle against Philadelphia.  The Atlanta Falcons, donning throwback uniforms from the 1966 season, beat the Panthers 28-10 in the Georgia Dome.

The main issue for the Panthers on Sunday was their defense.  Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan could likely get away with not washing his uniform after he was relatively unaffected by the Panthers' fruitless pass rush.  Ryan finished the day with 220 yards on 21-of-27 passing with three touchdowns and an interception.

The Falcons were also able to move the ball on the ground, gaining a team total of 151 rush yards—105 of which were picked up by Michael Turner. 

The Panthers' main problem on the day was, as is apparent by the above two paragraphs, the defense.  Again, for the sixth consecutive game including the preseason, the opposing team was able to catch the ball, turn and move up the field before encountering a Panthers defender.

When the opposing quarterback only has six incomplete passes for the game, one of which being an interception, you know that something is wrong in the pass defense.  Coupled with a pass rush that simply could not apply pressure, Carolina was left with little chance of victory.

The good news for the Panthers is that it doesn't appear that there are any hangover effects from the Week 1 performance that had fans edging closer to various ledges throughout the city. 

Jake Delhomme rebounded nicely with 308 yards while completing 25-of-41 pass attempts with a touchdown and a relatively irrelevant interception.  The touchdown pass to Dante Rosario gave the Panthers a fighting chance at the end of the game to come back and tie.

Double Trouble put together an impressive performance, combining for 144 yards on 25 carries.  DeAngelo Williams had the lone touchdown, a three-yard run early in the second quarter.

Jonathan Stewart averaged 7.2 yards on his nine carries and notched the game's long run of the day with a 28-yarder off of a draw play.

Let's take a ride on the elevator to see what positives the Panthers can take from this loss and what needs to be addressed in the long week leading up to their Monday Night Football affair in Dallas.


Going Up...

/\  Jake Delhomme.  Delhomme's performance on Sunday provided Panthers fans with a collective sigh of relief.  While most were likely again thinking, "there's no way that can happen again," I'm sure they were more skeptical of that phrase after seeing last week's performance.  Delhomme didn't force the ball too much. He made one very boneheaded play, where instead of throwing the ball out of bounds, he threw it lazily into the air where only Falcons defenders could reach it.  Luckily, no Falcons defender was able to make a play and the ball fell harmlessly to the turf.  Delhomme led the offense to a touchdown when he had to and took the team down the field to set up an opportunity to tie at the end of the game.  A solid performance is just what the doctor ordered for Delhomme and the Panthers' offense.

/\  Dante Rosario.  Rosario caught three of the four balls that were thrown his way on Sunday including the lone touchdown pass from Delhomme.  He averaged over 10 yards per catch.

/\  Steve Smith.  Smitty returned to his usual form on Sunday, catching eight balls for 131 yards.  He made two great sideline catches and was Delhomme's primary target, as usual.  He was able to gain separation from the Falcons defense and catch the ball in-stride to pick up yards after the catch.

/\  Thomas Davis.  Davis has been on a tear since this season began.  He notched his second straight 10-plus tackle game to start the season, finishing with 12. 

/\  Quinton Teal.  Teal has filled in nicely for Chris Harris in the first two games of the season. He recovered a fumble on Sunday after a long drive on the first Atlanta possession of the second half while adding three tackles. 

/\  Louis Leonard.  Leonard started in place of the injured Nick Hayden at defensive tackle on Sunday and was pretty effective in stopping the run until a fractured ankle knocked him out of the game.  It's unclear at this point how much time he is going to miss.


Going Down...

\/  Defense.  I could use a different section to blast each defensive unit, but I'll give them their lashing as a team.  When you're only making a play on six out of 27 balls thrown, something is clearly wrong.  No opposing receiver had to do any more than run to a soft spot in the zone, sit and wait to get the ball.  Where is the defense that the organization was so excited about in the offseason?  Where are the players collapsing towards the ball?  Where are the strips and the gang-tackles?  I haven't seen any of that.  The defense got their second interception in as many games and also recovered a fumble, but that doesn't count for anything if you allow the opposition to run and pass all over you throughout the rest of the game.  For the second week in a row, the defense started the game off with a three-and-out, then disappeared.  I'm sure Drew Brees has the two Panthers games circled on his calendar at home.

\/  Punt team.  In the season opener, this unit had a punt returned for a touchdown against them.  In the second game of the year, they had one blocked.  Yes, Jason Baker took too long to get the ball off.  But from what I saw, the snap wasn't on point either.  When a punter receives a snap it should be a tight spiral that the punter can catch on a level angle so he can rotate the ball to put the laces up and drop it directly onto his foot.  The snap looked like it was at an awkward angle, which threw Baker off of his rhythm, causing a snowball effect.  The bigger problem is the missed block that allowed the Falcons defense to be in the face of Baker.  The protection guys made a half-hearted attempt to get in the way of who was coming, but didn't sustain the block long enough for him to have gotten the kick off even if the snap was perfect.  Games can be won and lost with the punt unit and the Carolina unit certainly hasn't helped their team's case in the first two weeks.

\/  Rhys Lloyd.  I like Rhys, but he got embarrassed by Michael Koenen in the kickoff department yesterday.  The Panthers did not get the opportunity to return a single kickoff on Sunday.  Lloyd had five kickoff attempts, of which only two were touchbacks.  That is a relatively good day for a normal kicker, but when you are consuming a roster spot for the sole purpose of kicking the ball off deep to prevent returns, you have to do better.  The problem is magnified when the Panthers coverage allows the opposition to return kicks for an average of 34 yards.

\/  Injuries.  The team lost Brad Hoover, Na'il Diggs and Louis Leonard on Sunday to injuries.  Hoover's absence meant that rookie Tony Fiammetta had to step in. He dropped the only pass that came his way.  With the lack of depth on the defensive line, the loss of Leonard will hurt for weeks to come.  For a team that obviously hasn't grasped their new scheme on defense, they need their starters in there as much as possible.

\/  John Fox.  Fox has major work to do if he wants to make another trip to Spartanburg as Panthers head coach.  If this team continues to lose, he will find his seat quickly heating up—especially because there are so many reputable coaches out there right now.  Terry Bradshaw brought up the Bill Cowher conversation on Sunday during the Fox NFL Sunday pregame show—a realistic option if Fox gets the boot.  His sidestepping in press conferences, shady information on injuries and team news and inability to show passion, win or lose, has frustrated fans in Carolina for a long time.  It's starting to reach a boiling point.


The Panthers performed better on Sunday than they did the week prior, but 0-2 is no way to start a season.  Next week's game doesn't get any easier. The Panthers will travel to Dallas to take on the Cowboys in their brand new, billion-dollar stadium, which will make its first ever Monday Night Football appearance.  The defense will have to step up and keep Tony Romo from picking them apart the way Matt Ryan did.  If that doesn't happen, regardless of how the offense plays, they could be staring 0-3 right in the face.