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Thursday Night Preview: Falcons at Panthers

The Falcons and Panthers have both struggled to win close games this season. The Falcons’ troubles have been well documented — they have blown multiple double-digit leads and have lost three of their six games despite having leads in the fourth quarter. As for the Panthers, three of their four losses have come by an average margin of 4.67 points. These two teams have left wins on the table, and something has to give here. The Panthers beat the falcons in Week 5, so they’ll be going for the season sweep. Here are the keys to the game for both of these teams:

Keys to the game for the Atlanta Falcons:

1. Get Julio Jones involved early and often

There has been no doubt that the star of the Atlanta Falcons’ offense this season has been third-year receiver Calvin Ridley; however, Julio Jones remains a viable piece on this offense. Jones has not been a bigger part of this offense due to his inability to stay on the field, missing two games and being a regular on the injury report from week-to-week. Still, Jones has only two games this season in which he’s had less than eight receptions. When Jones has gotten involved in the offense, the Falcons have looked like a much more cohesive unit, which is evident from their past two games where Jones compiled a total of 16 receptions for 234 yards and two touchdowns. Against a Carolina pass defense that currently ranks fourth in the NFL in total yards given up to wide receivers with 930 (132.86 per game) per Pro Football Reference, it will be crucial for Atlanta to make sure Jones has a big role in this game, especially if Ridley gets off to a slow start.

2. Stay persistent with the run game

In some of the games Atlanta has trailed big in, they have gone away from former All-Pro running back Todd Gurley; however, this team has looked at its best when it gives Gurley a lot of carries. Gurley has been given a big workload already, but he had his best performance against Carolina in the first matchup of these teams — Gurley had only 14 carries in that game, but for 121 yards and a touchdown. Despite how good Carolina’s pass defense has been, its rush defense has still been very shaky to say the least. It currently ranks 18th in the NFL in rushing yards per game with 124. The Panthers also have missed the second-most tackles in the NFL with 65, and Gurley is certainly capable of making that number increase. Even if the Falcons are able to find some success in the air, their rushing attack should be an emphasis in this game, especially if the Falcons want to avoid playing catch-up like they had to in the first meeting between these teams. The Panthers game was Gurley’s only 100-yard contest of the season thus far. For a Falcons team that has had a hard time closing out games this season, an ability to chew clock may be very useful, especially against a team that has had such a hard time defending runs this season. Atlanta should make sure Gurley gets a lot more touches than he did in the first meeting if the Falcons want to have more success this time around.

3. Force Teddy Bridgewater to make risky plays

Teddy Bridgewater has generally been known as a conservative quarterback; he has never had over eight yards per pass attempt on average until this season (8.2, good enough for seventh in the league). With this increase in yards per attempt, Bridgewater’s interception numbers have gone up, as he currently has five interceptions through seven games. In the first meeting between these two teams, the Falcons were unable to force any turnovers from Bridgewater, and the veteran QB actually threw for his second-highest yardage total this season. Currently, the Falcons are 31st in the league in passing yards given up per game with 333.4 and have only forced eight turnovers on the season (22nd in the NFL). In order to take advantage of the Panthers’ more pass-oriented offense, the Falcons are going to have to force Bridgewater into making some throws that he is not accustomed to making. The Falcons can’t afford to go blow-for-blow with this team as that strategy did not work the first time around.

Keys to the game for the Carolina Panthers:

1. Get off the field on third down

One of the biggest reasons the Panthers were unable to defeat the New Orleans Saints last week was due to their inability to get off the field on third down when Drew Brees and company were driving. In fact, the Panthers allowed a season-worst 85% on third-down conversions in the 27-24 loss. This has been part of the reason why the Panthers are currently eighth in the NFL in percentage of drives leading to an offensive score with 47%. Combine that with the amount of missed tackles the Panthers have on the season (65), and you have a recipe for why Carolina has lost so many close games this season. As it sits today, the Panthers have the second-worst third-down conversion rate in the NFL, behind only the Tennessee Titans (56.3%). Games are won and lost on third downs, and with such a young and inexperienced defense, the Panthers cannot allow the Falcons to stay on the field. If the Panthers are able to force more punts out of the Falcons, their rush defense may not get exposed as much as it did in limited carries for Gurley in the previous matchup.

2. Continue to use a pass-oriented offense

Even with the potential return of star running back Christian McCaffrey this week, the Panthers have succeeded on offense this year when they have thrown the ball. Part of the reason why the Panthers have not been so predictable on offense this season has been due to the duo of Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore at wide receiver. These two receivers have been prolific this season, combining for 1,207 yards on 77 receptions and four touchdowns through seven games. Moreover, the Panthers have also attempted 54 more pass plays than run plays this season, which has led to the Panthers having a top-10 passing attack in the NFL. The Panthers proved last week with Mike Davis only getting seven carries that they do not need to dominate on the ground in order to be successful this season. This is part of the reason why Carolina has been able to hang on in some of these games against very good offensive teams like the Buccaneers, Raiders, and Saints. With the Falcons having one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL, the Panthers should look to expose that once again — the Panthers had 313 yards through the air in the first matchup — in order to make sure they can get out to a big lead like they did against Atlanta the first time around.

3. Don’t be afraid to give Curtis Samuel more snaps at running back

With McCaffrey out since Week 2, one of the backup running backs for Carolina has been wide receiver Curtis Samuel. We have seen receivers like Cordarrelle Patterson and Ty Montgomery who have done pretty well with extensive carries at running back. Against the Saints, the Panthers were not as diligent with the run game as they were in previous games, and it seemed like the offensive line wasn’t creating big holes for Mike Davis to get through as his longest run of the day was for seven yards. It seemed like the biggest hole Carolina’s offensive line had made the whole day was on a 5-yard touchdown run by Samuel. So why not give Samuel more carries, especially since the Falcons are one of the best teams at defending the run this season at 92.4 yards per game (sixth in the NFL)? The Panthers may have a hard time setting up the run game for Davis the second time around, which means the Panthers could get creative and use Samuel more at tailback. Remember, he was a good running back at Ohio State and is fully capable of running a lot of plays from that position. If Samuel has some success at tailback, this could also open up some running lanes for Davis and potentially allow the Panthers to not have to pass as often as they have this season.