3TFO: Panthers @ Falcons, Week 17
The NFC South ended up being a two-team race, just not with the two teams many expected to see fighting it out. As the Atlanta Falcons fell off the map from their 13-3 performance in 2012, the Carolina Panthers built on their strong 2012 finish and have turned in one of the league’s more impressive 2013 campaigns, taking down San Francisco, New England and New Orleans among others in the second half.
In the finale, the two will square off with much already decided: the Falcons will have a pick in the first seven or eight on draft day and the Panthers will be in the playoffs. Exact positioning for both is what’s on the line.
Always interesting, as division games are, there will be plenty to watch on closer look and here are a few spots that will be particularly worth some attention:
Comfort for Cam
When Cam Newton is not facing pressure this season, his passer rating sits at an impressive 98.7 and his PFF grade of +8.7 is a respectable number. It’s when he’s rushed that he sees a sizable drop in both (65.7 and -2.4) and becomes the tough-to-predict wild card. Taking a sack on more than 21% of his drop-backs facing pressure (eighth-worst of 41 QBs), Newton is near the bottom of the list with eight pressured interceptions (36th) but is also near the top with eight touchdowns (fourth) and an accuracy percentage of 66.4 (ninth).
The problem for Atlanta is they’ve received next to nothing from their defense in the pressure department this year. Ends Jonathan Massaquoi (-4.5 pass rushing) and Osi Umenyiora (-6.3) have combined for 64 total pressures (there are 10 4-3 DEs who’ve collected 60+ as individuals) and the interior hasn’t contributed on any great pace. If that continues this week, the much more stable — and effective — version of Newton will be given the opportunity to finish off the regular season in comfort.
A Good Battle on the Left
Running to their left, the Panthers are averaging 4.3, 4.0, and 4.5 per gap from left guard out to left end, respectively, and have seen their linemen on that side earn run-blocking grades among the best at their positions. PFF Pro Bowl selections, left tackle Jordan Gross (+5.5, eighth among left tackles) and left guard Travelle Wharton (+9.0, fifth), along with center Ryan Kalil (+8.9, fifth) and blocking tight end Ben Hartsock (+11.7, first) form a solid front for Carolina runners to play off of and will be part of one of this game’s better matchups.
A relative strength for the Falcons’ defense is the run-stopping combo of Johnathan Babineaux and Corey Peters – who will each see time on the defense’s right – and outside linebacker Joplo Bartu who with go with strength and should give us a fair amount to watch across from Hartsock. Both Babineaux and Peters carry an 8.3 Run Stop Percentage into the contest and the three, along with right end Uminyiora, boast the defense’s top run defense grades.
Douglas vs. Munnerlyn in the Slot
Atlanta’s Harry Douglas has been one of the league’s most targeted slot receivers this season — his 69 looks coming in short of just Wes Welker and Kendall Wright – and he’s hauled in 45 of his 78 catches and more than half of his 1010 yards on those chances. Asked to do a lot more with the Falcon receiving corps’ depleted early-season state, Douglas’ 367 routes run from the slot far surpasses numbers he’s posted in recent years. Douglas has given Matt Ryan a dependable everyday target outside of Tony Gonzalez when the team needed one desperately, but with only two touchdowns against six interceptions on passes his way, Ryan’s passer rating on throws to Douglas has fallen to a mark of 77.9 (67th on a list of 94 receivers).
Lining up against him this week will be Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. When working against the slot, Munnerlyn has been targeted more than all but two other corners (Brandon Boykin and Tracy Porter) and has given up 42 catches, also a Bottom-5 figure. With 371 slot snaps spent in coverage, though, his per-snap numbers for targets and receptions have him around the middle of the pack. Among the 22 corners who’ve spent at least 250 snaps covering the slot, Munnerlyn’s 79.9 passer rating allowed ranks ninth and he’s one of a handful to not have given up a touchdown yet this year.
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