3TFO: Falcons @ Panthers, Week 14
This is a game between two teams going in rather different directions. The Falcons, at 11-1, have clinched the NFC South and are looking to lock up the top seed in the NFC and a playoff bye. Conversely, the Panthers sit at 3-9 after losing to the Chiefs and now are playing for pride.
The last meeting between these two teams came down to the wire with a thrilling come-from-behind win for the Falcons. And with Atlanta’s penchant for close games, this matchup looks to be just as exciting. Here are some areas to keep an eye on in this NFC South battle.
Panthers Rushing Attack
With quarterback Cam Newton being pressured on 35.5% of snaps — the sixth-highest rate in the league — the Panthers will likely look to establish a strong running game to keep the Atlanta rush off-balance and aid a struggling offensive line. And with Jonathan Stewart uncertain again this week, DeAngelo Williams should be the primary back on first and second downs. His 12 carries against the Chiefs were the second-most he’s received this season and he responded nicely, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Look for him to get a similar workload against the Falcons, who have graded as our fifth-worst team in run defense.
Atlanta is allowing 4.8 YPC on the season, despite heavily using three defensive tackles on first and second down. Of course, it doesn’t help that Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux are both among the worst defensive tackles we’ve graded in run defense while playing 66% and 88% of snaps, respectively. They should get some help with the return of Peria Jerry, though the team could be without safety William Moore, who’s been solid playing downhill in run support. And playing the Panthers comes with the added challenge of defending an extremely mobile quarterback in Newton, who’s averaging 5.5 YPC on designed runs.
In particular, Atlanta will have to be ready to defend the read-option, which the Panthers use extensively in their running game. Carolina favors the ‘inverted veer’ where Newton becomes the inside runner, and instead of reading the backside end, the option occurs on the play side. And since the Panthers frequently run it with ‘11’ personnel, the opposition often gets caught in a lighter defensive package. The play usually goes to the strong side where tight end Greg Olsen is in inside slot, and they pull the backside guard. John Abraham, Kroy Biermann, and Stephen Nicholas, all of whom often line up on the outside, will have to be ready and disciplined when the Panthers do run the option.
Falcons Receivers vs. Captain Munnerlyn
With the Falcons’ stable of big pass catchers that includes Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez, they’ll likely make an emphasis of targeting diminutive cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. Munnerlyn, listed at 5’9”, has been decent in coverage despite his size and has allowed 64.4% of passes to be completed for an average of 9.8 yards. Quarterbacks have a rating of just 73.6 when targeting Munnerlyn, who has two interceptions and an additional five pass defenses.
With Chris Gamble out, Munnerlyn plays almost exclusively on the right side of the offense at LCB in the Panthers’ base defense, moving inside to cover the slot when nickel corner Josh Thomas enters the game. Given this trend, look for him to match up against White most often on first and second down, as White lines up at RWR on roughly 54% of his snaps. But the Falcons could end up moving the taller Jones, who plays only 29% of snaps at RWR, to that side more often to better take advantage of the height differential. And considering Munnerlyn’s longest catch allowed this season went for just 36 yards — and he hasn’t given up a catch longer than 15 yards in the past five games — it will be interesting to watch whether the Falcons, who like to take shots downfield, try to attack him deep.
John Abraham vs. Panthers offensive line
For Newton to have time to throw, and the Carolina passing game to get rolling, Jordan Gross and the rest of the offensive line will have to contain Abraham on the edge. On a line that’s been one of the league’s worst in pass protection – the Panthers rank 30th in Pass Blocking Efficiency – Gross has been solid. He is coming off of a rough game, however, in which he allowed a hit and two hurries at the hands of Tamba Hali. He’ll face a similar test from Abraham, who is coming off his best game of the season. Against the Saints, the Falcon produced nine total hurries in addition to batting down two passes.
Though Abraham primarily rushes the passer from the defensive right side — about 70 % of his total rushes on the season have come from the right — the Falcons will likely also send their hybrid DE/OLB after the passer from the left side. In the Week 4 meeting between these two teams, he lined up on the left side on 52% of his snaps rushing the passer, beating right tackle Byron Bell for two hurries and a sack. Bell has been slightly more vulnerable to inside and bull rushes this season than outside rushes, as 45% of his allowed pressures have come from the outside. This will be an interesting matchup to watch, as Abraham tends to favor the outside rush with 57% of his total pressure coming from the outside.