3TFO: Falcons @ Panthers, Week 9
Cam Newton and the Panthers appear set to make the jump from "almost relevant" to legitimate wild card contenders though they'll have to prove it against the Falcons this week.
3TFO: Falcons @ Panthers, Week 9
This contest features two teams headed in decidedly opposite directions. The Falcons arrive in Carolina after a disappointing loss to Arizona, highlighted by an uncharacteristic four-interception performance from Matt Ryan. Ryan has hardly been the problem this year, however, as a lack of running game and injuries to their top two receivers have proven to be a fatal combination for the Falcons’ offense. Their defense hasn’t been in top form either (-8.8), and the previous Super Bowl contenders are now barely clinging on to faint playoff hopes.
Carolina returns home on 10 days rest after a dominant performance last Thursday against a deficient Buccaneers team. It was an important symbolic milestone for the Panthers, as they moved above the .500 mark for the first time since Cam Newton’s arrival in Charlotte. During the past three years, the Panthers have always been close, but have never really taken it to the next level of being a true playoff contender. Sunday’s game, however, is a chance for a real statement win against a previous divisional powerhouse. A victory against the Falcons would help move the Panthers into strong wild card contention (with even some hope of catching the division-leading Saints), while putting Atlanta out of its misery at the same time.
Lamar Holmes vs. Greg Hardy
The Falcons’ offensive line has played poorly most of the season, and the chief culprit, among many, has been current left tackle Lamar Holmes. He took over the position (moving over from right tackle) after Sam Baker went down with an injury prior to Week 3, and it’s been a train wreck ever since. He’s managed an overall -19.4 grade this season, allowing two sacks, six hits, and 29 hurries on his quarterback. His run blocking has been equally bad, with just one positive grade in seven games, and an -8.0 for the year. The near-constant pressure allowed by Holmes and co. on Ryan was noticeable against the Cardinals, and it led to Ryan’s worst performance of the year.
On Sunday he will be going up against primarily Greg Hardy (+8.6), who rushes from right end 82.9% of the time, although he will move inside on third down sometimes. With 29 of his 34 total pressures having come from defensive end, including all six sacks, it has been good enough for a Pass Rush Productivity of 11.8 (eighth overall among 4-3 ends). Hardy has been an especially complete player in this, his fourth year, as one of only two 4-3 defensive ends in the league with a grade over +1.0 in pass rush, run defense, and even coverage. When he does come out or slide over to tackle, Mario Addison typically takes his place, and has provided some very good third-down pressure from the spot, having generated 11 pressures in 75 pass rush snaps. With Charles Johnson (PRP of 13.8) manning the left end, it may be difficult for Atlanta to give Holmes much help in pass protection.
Since being drafted No. 1 overall in 2011, the spotlight has been firmly on Newton in Carolina, and how the combination of his incredible physical skills with his lack of experience in a pro-style offense at Auburn would translate at the NFL level. Needless to say there was a lot of growing up involved, and every frown and sulk he made on the sideline was well-documented. But it appears that now in his third year, Newton (+10.3) is really coming into his own as both quarterback and de facto leader of the Panthers.
He has always had tremendous mobility and elusiveness in the pocket, allowing him to extend the play or scramble for yards, as indicated by his 4.42 seconds average time to a sack in our Quarterback Time In Pocket, second only to Russell Wilson. Most impressive this year though has been his Accuracy Percentage Under Pressure. He leads all quarterbacks with a 76.0% in that category, completing 37 of 58 passes for seven touchdowns when under pressure (Accuracy Percentage removes dropped passes and throwaways from the equation). Newton has been pressured on 37.8% of dropped passes, about average for the league. He is also especially effective off play action, with an NFL QB rating almost 50 points higher than when using a conventional drop-back.
Falcons Linebacking Corps
In a season filled with disappointment so far for Atlanta, perhaps the worst unit has been the linebackers. Sean Witherspoon was injured in Week 2 and the resulting lack of experience at the position has been noticeable. Rookie free agent Joplo Bartu has the most snaps of any linebacker at 364, but he has struggled to make a positive impact, grading in at -5.7 so far. He provides some pass rush ability with four sacks and four hurries (good enough for an 18.2 Pass Rush Productivity), but has really struggled in pass coverage and run defense. Paul Worrilow, another rookie free agent, has also racked up a lot of snaps this year (190), and has manned the outside opposite Bartu. Unfortunately, Worrilow and Bartu have very poor Tackling Efficiency ratings of 6.5 and 6.4, respectively, demonstrating their problems in the run game.
Middle linebacker and 2011 third-round pick Akeem Dent is the “veteran” of the group, but is also the lowest-rated defender on the team at -5.7, and his Tackling Efficiency isn’t much better than his teammates at 7.5. Besides having to deal with the dynamic playmaking ability of Cam Newton, the Falcons’ linebackers will also have to contend with running backs DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert. Tolbert especially is having a terrific season (+6.4), coming in often on third downs and having filled in nicely for the injured Jonathan Stewart to complete the Panthers’ dual-threat backfield. If these three Panthers maintain the level of play we have seen from them in recent weeks, they could make it a very long day for the Atlanta linebackers and defense as a whole.
Follow Roland on Twitter: @PFF_RolandB