CAR-ATL grades: Cam Newton struggles under pressure
As the Carolina Panthers’ undefeated season came to an end, let’s look at the most noteworthy events and top-graded performances from the Atlanta Falcons’ big 20-13 win:
–It seemed that many had already ruled the MVP race over, but front-runner Cam Newton (+0.5 game grade) opened the door with a subpar performance that isn’t representative of his recent performance. Facing more pressure than he is accustomed to (15 of 34 dropbacks), he struggled to make plays with his arm all day long. He only completed three passes thrown 10 or more yards downfield all day, and while it would be nice to blame that on drops, his receivers only dropped two this week. The Falcons defense got the better of him, and highlighted a potential Achilles heel of Newton’s: His passer rating drops by 53 points when facing pressure, compared to the 27-point drop the average NFL quarterback experiences.
–One player the Falcons didn’t get the best of was Pro Bowl debutant Kawann Short (+7.4). Short had a monster game, and while his two sacks will catch the eye, it was actually his work in the running game that really stood out (his sacks were pure clean-up). He was disruptive all day long, with the Falcons’ inability to get their outside zone running game working largely because Short wouldn’t stay blocked.
–After a disappointing effort by his high standards last week, this week saw Luke Kuechly (-4.3) again hurt his case to be Defensive Player of the Year. He was ineffective against Atlanta, missing two tackles, being called for a penalty and getting beat for six catches into his primary coverage (not to mention his role in Julio Jones’ big touchdown). He’s a much better player than he showed Sunday, that’s for sure.
DT Kawann Short (+7.4)
RG Trai Turner (+2.8)
LB Thomas Davis (+1.6)
FB Mike Tolbert (+1.6)
C Ryan Kalil (+1.3)
–Where was this Matt Ryan (+5.8) when the Falcons were throwing away their shot at the postseason? Ryan was nearly immaculate against Carolina, completing 23 of 29 aimed passes, with four drops — meaning he was guilty of just two off-target passes. That’s incredible accuracy. What’s more, he didn’t dink and dunk the Panthers, instead going heavy on the play-action and attacking them in the intermediate middle of the field. There, he completed five of seven passes for 81 yards, including some big chain-movers.
–Of course, it’s hard to imagine Ryan being anywhere near as effective if he didn’t have the help of Julio Jones (+4.8). Jones is as physically intimidating a receiver as there is in the league, and he showed it with his highlight-reel touchdown grab over Luke Kuechly (-4.3). That wasn’t the only way he hurt the Panthers, and he can claim a victory in his battle with Josh Norman (-1.4), catching five of six balls when Norman was covering him, for 80 yards.
–It wasn’t just the offense that had some big days, with Vic Beasley (+3.6) having what the Falcons will hope was a breakout game that was a sign of his promising future. He had a sack and three hurries while causing Mike Remmers (-0.9) a lot of problems. His game-winning strip sack was an example of just the kind of player Atlanta may have when a fully healthy Beasley takes the field in 2016.
QB Matt Ryan (+5.5)
WR Julio Jones (+4.0)
DE Vic Beasley (+3.6)
LB Justin Durant (+2.9)
DT Ra’Shede Hageman (+2.4)