ReFo: Falcons @ Panthers, Week 9
Atlanta continued their mess of a season with a second straight road loss, this time to the division rival Panthers, in a game where the outcome was never really in doubt despite a close score at times. Few single plays can adequately capture the Falcon’s season so far, but Cam Newton’s touchdown pass to a WIDE open Greg Olsen at 4:20 of the second quarter is about as good as you can get.
With their fourth straight victory, Carolina moves to 5-3 on the year and, with a New Orleans loss, are now just one game back in the NFC South. Though they might be playing better than any other team at the moment, what has been a fairly light schedule so far is about to get much tougher with games against the 49ers and Patriots in the next two weeks. With both games against the Saints looming as well, we’ll see how good Carolina really is in the latter part of the season.
There were definitely some eye-catching performances in this one, so let’s take a look.
Atlanta – Three Performances of Note
Mistakes Haunt Ryan
Outside of a few mistakes, Matt Ryan actually played fairly decently, completing 20 of his 26 aimed passes for 219 yards. However, his blunders proved too much to overcome, as the Panthers took full advantage of his three interceptions. The first came on the team’s second drive, and though it led to seven Carolina points, Ryan moved past it pretty quickly, with a number of first down throws leading the team to 10 points before halftime, including an impressive TD pass at the two-minute warning. The bad Ryan came back late in the game, though, as he helped turn what was a reasonably close game (seven point differential) into a Panther blowout. There was some luck involved in the tip drill interception at 3:36 of the third, but it was a regrettable decision to begin with as three Panther defenders surrounded Harry Douglas on the throw. And his decision at 8:39 of the fourth was even worse, when he gave Drayton Florence an easy path to the end zone on a clearly predetermined hitch throw to Drew Davis. What made his play worse is that he faced no pressure on any of his three interceptions.
No Falcon defender struggled quite as much as Peria Jerry, who after being a first round pick in 2009, has had yet to make an impact commensurate with what the Falcons paid to get him. Against Carolina, he played 52 snaps, but finished at -3.4, bested by the Panther front in both facets. No pressure in 22 rushes was actually his worst pass rushing performance this season. He was sealed in run defense a number of times as well, though did make a couple of positive plays in the third quarter; he beat RG Nate Chandler outside to widen RB towards the sideline at one point, and later in the quarter (3:01), he forced a Travelle Wharton hold. With a stop on neither of his tackles, though, the Falcons need him to do more than that. Perhaps the play that best sums up his performance came at 10:56 of the fourth quarter, when he made a good outside move to beat the RT, but subsequently missed the tackle attempt on Jonathan Stewart, allowing the back to gain four yards on a play that should have gone for zero.
One bright spot for the Falcons was the play of their rookie defensive back, Desmond Trufant, who despite being flagged for two defensive pass interference penalties, still managed to grade at +1.3 in coverage. This performance also moved him to +4.2 on the season, which isn’t spectacular, but still impressive for a rookie to be one of the 20 highest-graded players at the position through nine weeks. Among his highlights against the Panthers were a second quarter interception (10:19), a hit to knock the ball loose from Steve Smith (2Q, 1:07), a tackle for no gain on a screen pass (3Q, 7:24) and a pass defense at 6:45 of the third, both coming against Smith as well. Of course, he also benefited from a few overthrows by Newton, making his statistics look slightly better – just two catches allowed in eight targets – but as evidenced by his grade, it was much more good than bad for Trufant.
Carolina – Three Performances of Note
Setting the Tone Up Front
While the Panthers have a dynamic receiver at tight end in Greg Olsen, at the other spot they’ve opted to go with a complete non-threat in the passing game with Ben Harstock. They’ll take that, though, when Hartstock is this good at his role. Through nine weeks he’s been the best blocking TE by a mile, and had another solid game yesterday, helping to set the tone in the run game against the Falcons. Watch his play at 5:50 of the second quarter – the Panthers were stopped just short of the first down, but Hartstock did his part driving Jonathan Massaquoi well off the LOS, and remained locked onto the defender even after the play was over.
Carolina also got a big performance at the point of attack from their center Ryan Kalil (+3.4), who didn’t have any spectacular individual plays, but consistently sealed his adversary (mostly to his left) and creating holes for the ball carrier. The team’s success in the run game helped keep the Atlanta defense off balance and open things up for Cam Newton on play action; executing a PA fake on 26% of his drop-backs, Newton completed 24.4% more of his passes (80%) with a 1.6 higher YPA than when he didn’t fake.
DiMarco vs Kuechly
Luke Kuechly makes quite a few ‘splash’ plays, including his interception on Atlanta’s second drive (1Q, 10:18), when Kuechly did a tremendous job staying underneath Tony Gonzalez and turning to play the ball. For as many good plays as he makes though, he also struggles, such as at 2:00 of the second quarter, when he let Gonzalez get behind him in the endzone on a post for a 17-yard touchdown. He really struggled in the run game, however, especially against fullback Patrick DiMarco, who played just 11 snaps, but compiled his entire +2.0 grade in this matchup. DiMarco got the better of the LB multiple times, with Kuechly getting the worst of it on consecutive plays late in the game (3Q, 0:18 and 4Q, 15:00). The second of those plays went particularly poorly for the Panther with DiMarco taking him to the ground. Add a missed tackle to his struggles against Atlanta’s fullback, and it was a forgettable day for Kuechly.
Too Much Star at the POA
While Atlanta saw its first rounder playing well, Carolina got a matching performance form rookie Star Lotulelei, who continued his outstanding first season and is among the top candidates for defensive rookie of the year. He didn’t do too much in the passing game with two pressures (both in the second quarter) in 21 rushes, but as usual was a force at the point of attack in run defense. All three of his tackles constituted offensive failures (the third straight week with a stop on every tackle) as did his one assist. His strength was just overwhelming at times, with even veteran lineman unable to stop his penetration – this was the case on the game’s second offensive play when he knifed past Justin Blalock to drop the runner for a one yard loss (though the official scorer credited Kawann Short, who wasn’t even on the field, with the stop). Star also had a similar play beating left tackle Sam Baker at 10:57 of the third quarter.
– Cam Newton didn’t complete any of his six pass attempts over 20 yards.
– Stephen Jackson averaged 7.1 yards per carry on six runs outside the tackles, compared to just 2 YPC running to interior gaps
– Safety William Moore has missed a tackle in every game since Week 4 after not missing any in the first three weeks.
PFF Game Ball
This one goes to Drayton Florence, who helped slow down the Falcon passing attack, while his fourth-quarter pick-six moved the game solidly into garbage time.
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