There’s a fine line between glory and disappointment in the NFL, and Cam Newton and the young Carolina Panthers learned that lesson on Sunday versus the Atlanta Falcons. With a slim lead and 1:51 remaining, Carolina was a mere 2 yards away from icing the game and completing a big NFC South upset. But Newton came up short on a third-down dive, fumbling the ball and giving the Falcons one last chance at an improbable win. Backed up on his own 1-yard line after the punt, Matt Ryan made the most of the opportunity. He connected with Roddy White to set up a game-winning field goal as time expired. In overcoming his first deficit of the season, “Matty Ice” improved his lifetime record at the Georgia Dome to 28-4.
At 4-0, the Falcons have an early stranglehold on the NFC South and resemble the 2010 Atlanta team that grabbed the top seed in the NFC. Newton and the Panthers sulk back to Carolina at 1-3, searching for a way to save a season that started with so much hope and promise. Let’s take a look at some notable takeaways from Sunday’s game:
Carolina – Three Performances of Note
Nakamura’s Costly Errors
Haruki Nakamura’s (-0.9) started the game strong, snuffing out an early Falcons scoring opportunity with a crafty end zone interception, but his day went downhill from there. White beat him on a 49-yard bomb on the next drive, although Nakamura wouldn’t have been in that position if not for blown coverage underneath. Ryan’s second touchdown to White split Nakamura and linebacker Jon Beason. And with 10:29 left in the third quarter, Michael Turner caught a short pass over the middle that should have been limited to a first-down gain. Instead, Nakamura over-pursued the play, missed a tackle, and left no one between Turner and a 60-yard dash to the end zone.
Yet none of those errors matched the embarrassment of Nakamura’s final gaffe. With 0:59 left to play and no timeouts, Ryan heaved a bomb to White in double-coverage. Nakamura was in perfect position to defend the pass, but completely misplayed it to the point where he didn’t even lay a finger on the ball. That gave the Falcons the life they needed to pull out the win. New rumors that Ron Rivera could reinsert Sherrod Martin into the starting safety role indicate that Nakamura’s otherwise consistent play may no longer outweigh his costly errors.
Charles Johnson’s Pass Rush
At the other end of Carolina’s defense, the Panthers front four harassed Ryan all game, led by defensive end Charles Johnson (+6.8 pass rush). Johnson’s 10 total pressures included a career-high four sacks, and his seven defensive stops were four more than any other Carolina defender tallied. He announced his presence immediately, knocking down a wide receiver screen pass on the Falcons’ second play from scrimmage, and then bull rushing right tackle Tyson Clabo into Ryan for a sack on the next play. Johnson also showcased his speed with 1:19 left in the third quarter, when reserve lineman Mike Johnson barely laid a hand on him as the Panther dropped Ryan for a 9-yard loss. Many fans didn’t know of Johnson before the Panthers gave him a massive contract last year, but his play certainly matched paycheck in this game.
Olsen On Point
On a day when Brandon LaFell didn’t record a catch and Steve Smith was busy jawing with cornerback Dunta Robinson, tight end Greg Olsen (+6.6) was the Panthers’ best offensive weapon. Olsen broke two tackles on his first quarter touchdown, and may have had another score if he could have stayed in bounds on his 34-yard reception in the fourth. As good as he was in the passing game — his 2.33 Yards Per Route Run ranks third among all TEs — Olsen’s run blocking was even more impressive. He controlled defenders at the point of attack and was a big reason the Panthers rushed for 64 yards on eight carries outside left tackle Jordan Gross.
Atlanta – Three Performances of Note
Ryan Thrives Under Pressure
We noted in our Three To Focus On preview that, despite his hot start, Matt Ryan had completed just one of five deep passes in his first three games. His completion percentage also dropped to 57.1% when he faced pressure. On Sunday, Ryan (+3.6) put both those questions to rest. Against the Panthers, he was 4-of-8 for 152 yards and two touchdowns on passes beyond 20 yards. And despite being sacked a career-high seven times by Johnson and company, he was 7-of-10 for 118 yards and a 142.9 NFL QB Rating when under pressure. One particularly impressive play came with 5:46 left in the fourth quarter, when Ryan was again facing a rush on third down. With Johnson bearing down on him for another sack, the Falcons’ QB somehow found Jacquizz Rodgers for a 7-yard gain. Although he didn’t get the first down, Ryan turned what could have been a long field goal try into a 33-yard chip shot and those three points proved crucial later in the game. With a great performance under pressure, Ryan’s 102.73 PFF QB Rating leads all passers this season.
White’s Still Alright
For those who expected Julio Jones (-1.4) to supplant Roddy White (+3.0) as the Falcons’ top receiver, this game serves notice that the veteran wideout will not go quietly into the night. White’s 169 yards and two touchdowns were critical in a back-and-forth contest, and his aforementioned 59-yard catch brought Atlanta back from the brink of defeat. Ryan has a ridiculous 136.4 QB rating when throwing the ball to White this season. After 17 drops in 2011, White has just two so far this season, cutting his Drop Rate from 13.04 last year to 6.90 in 2012.
Ryan still targeted Jones eight times in this game, but the young wideout was often shadowed by top CB Chris Gamble, leaving White to work on Carolina’s safeties and weaker corners. White’s second touchdown, where he lined up in the slot, blew past Beason, and then stayed inside Nakamura, was a perfect example of how Atlanta dictated these matchups. There will be future games where Ryan leans on Jones, but White is very much still entrenched as one of the league’s best receivers.
Concern for Clabo
Since we started grading in 2008, Falcons right tackle Tyson Clabo has been among the better offensive linemen in the league. His +24.4 mark last season ranked second among offensive tackles, which makes his -4.0 grade on Sunday all the more troubling. Recovering from a recent hip injury, he gave up nine QB pressures after surrendering just six in the previous three games combined. His three sacks allowed nearly matched the four he yielded all of last season. Johnson levied much of that damage, but there were times when Clabo was even outmatched by reserve lineman Frank Alexander (+2.3). If Clabo’s injury keeps affecting his performance like this, the Falcons may have to adjust to some unfamiliar issues on the right side of their protection.
– Turner showed why he grades high in our Elusive Rating scale, breaking a ridiculous 11 Panther tackles. It was a team-wide failure for Carolina, as 12 different defenders recorded a miss.
– After a tough start to the season, Panthers rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly earned a +3.6 grade in this game thanks to some nice plays in pass coverage. His tackle for loss of RB Jason Snelling with 14:37 left in the second quarter was particularly impressive.
– The George Costanza award for ‘going out on a high note’ goes to Kealoha Pilares. The Panthers’ second-year WR scored a 36-yard touchdown on his only offensive snap of the game.
With a very honorable mention to Charles Johnson and his relentless pass rush, it was Matt Ryan’s poise under that pressure that earns him this game ball. The season is very young, but right now Ryan is a legitimate MVP candidate.
Follow Pete on Twitter @PFF_Pete