ReFo: Panthers @ Falcons, Week 17
After an early 10-0 lead put their first round playoff bye at risk, the Panthers rallied back in Atlanta to finish their season with a 21-20 win and lock up the second seed in the NFC. Despite no meaningful incentives, the Falcons stayed competitive in this one, but fell short during a late comeback attempt – as they’ve done many times this season.
Now Carolina goes into a bye week, waiting to see who they’ll host in the divisional playoff round, while Atlanta starts its offseason looking to rebound and get back to the NFC Championship form they showed a year ago.
Carolina – Three Performances of Note
Much of the reason the Carolina defense was able to limit the Atlanta offense was its ability to consistently get to Matt Ryan. And it comes as no surprise that DE Greg Hardy (+5.8) graded as the best of a group that pressured Ryan on just under 50% of his drop backs. Hardy followed up his dominant three sack performance a week ago with a mammoth four sacks and seven other disruptions (three hits, four hurries), marking the third straight week that he’s been close to unblock-able. Plays such as 7:40 of the first quarter and 3:07 of the third quarter show that the Falcons clearly didn’t do their homework, leaving Tony Gonzalez in one-on-one pass protection against the Panther; Hardy beat the future Hall of Fame tight end for sacks on both plays.
As has been the case in many games this season, the Panthers came out with the win despite some underwhelming play from Cam Newton. Despite finishing with a respectable 62.5% completion rate on his 24 aimed passes, there were some accuracy issues on anything intermediate or deep, and Newton didn’t complete a single pass over 10 yards in the air all game, predominantly missing high. Of course, he was unlucky when a poorly thrown –though not egregious – pass turned into an interception (2Q, 13:17), but he also benefited from some Falcon miscues, such as at 3Q, 13:38 when Desmond Trufant dropped what should have been a fairly easy interception. Even on what was probably his best throw of the day (1Q, 7:57), the ball had a little too much on it, just enough to result in an incompletion. Newton made up for some of his passing woes with some impressive rushing plays (6.0 YPC on 12 rushes), but finishing the season as he did through the air doesn’t bode well heading into the playoffs.
Not as Good as Last Week
After his monster home performance against the Saints, a letdown was perhaps inevitable for Luke Kuechly, and that’s pretty much what happened. He wasn’t necessarily bad, but just wasn’t around the ball as much as he normally is, as evidenced by his tackle total reduced by more than 50% from last week. Apart from a pair of unblocked stops (e.g. 4Q, 13:01), he didn’t have a whole lot of opportunity to make plays in run defense, given Atlanta’s 18 rushing attempts. And when Kuechly otherwise did get opportunities, he didn’t execute particularly well, as was the case at 11:36 of the first quarter, when he let Steven Jackson turn what would have been a loss or very short run into a 3-yard run on 2nd-and-4. He was likewise unspectacular in coverage, with three catches allowed (two going for first downs) in five targets.
Atlanta – Three Performances of Note
White Drops the Ball
Outside of the chance to play spoiler to a division rival, this was a largely meaningless game for the Falcons, and if the performance of Roddy White is any indication, much of the Falcons roster treated it the same way. Targeted 14 times, White dropped a whopping four passes, all of varying difficulty and importance. The two that came on third down were particularly bad (1Q, 6:17 and 4Q, 7:18), with White avoiding potential big hits on both. With a false start penalty adding to his -4.1 grade, it’s safe to say White had a sloppy game. It wasn’t all bad, though, as he did end up with eight catches for 91 yards, including an impressive touchdown catch on a post at 9:58 of the third quarter to put his team back up by three.
Although they’ve battled through some early injuries at the position, upgrading the offensive line will surely be a significant focus for the Falcons this offseason, especially ending the season with a performance like this. Center Joe Hawley was the worst of the unit, grading at -5.1, and he particularly had trouble blocking Dwan Edwards. For a sample take a look at 11:00 of the third quarter, when Hawley was beaten badly off of the line and forced to hold, with the penalty wiping out a 15-yard gain. His errant snap late in the fourth also effectively killed any comeback chances the team had.
Peter Konz (one sack, three hurries) likewise had his fair share of troubles on the interior, offering little resistance to any Panther he was tasked with blocking, whether it was Hardy, Kawann Short, or Charles Johnson.
Too Many Misses
A recurring theme in this game for the Falcons defense was allowing the Panthers to turn what should have been moderate or short gains into big gains, and no player was a worse offender than safety Thomas DeCoud. First, at 8:58 of the second quarter, he whiffed on DeAngelo Williams, who went 56 yards on the play before eventually fumbling in the red zone. DeCoud struck again later in the quarter (1:27), failing to bring down Newton on a keeper on the option, surrendering a first down gain in the process. Likewise at 5:56 of the third, when he missed Williams for the second time, and third total, doing nothing to stem what was already a gashing run. With games like this all too common this season, it’s no surprise that DeCoud ranks among our lowest players at the position.
– In what was likely his last NFL game, Tony Gonzalez played 72 snaps, catching four passes for 56 yards. Unfortunately, he won’t be going out on a high note in terms of pass protection, having allowed two sacks.
– With a +3.1, rookie corner Desmond Trufant finished the season with a +11.7 overall grade, among 10 best at the position.
– Brandon LaFell was held without a catch for the first time all season (five targets).
PFF Game Ball
Despite the efforts of Travelle Wharton, this one has to go to Greg Hardy, who’s certainly earned himself a hefty raise in his contract year.
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