It’s a return to division play for the Panthers, who travel down I-85 to take on their NFC South rival Atlanta. So will this be the week that the Panthers snap their losing streak, which is now up to four games? It won’t be easy against a Falcons team that got off to a slow start this season but has won two in a row and is now 3-3 on the year.
Lots has changed in Atlanta since the last time these teams met – the Falcons have a new head coach and GM, they traded away star receiver Julio Jones, and brought in a bunch of young talent. But one thing that remains the same Matty Ice. Quarterback Matt Ryan is back for his 16th season with the Falcons, and the former MVP is still one of the best in the league. “Veteran QB, smart guy,” said Panther linebacker Hassan Reddick. “He’s been doing it for a very long time at a very high level. He’s very good at what he does.”
Julio might be gone but the cupboard is not bare in Atlanta. The Falcons still have explosive receivers Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage. They also added do-everything player Cordarelle Patterson, who’s racked up 529 combined rushing and receiving yards and six touchdowns, plus brought in former Panthers running back Mike Davis to anchor the ground game. But the Falcons’ top weapon right now is rookie tight end Kyle Pitts. The fourth overall pick in the draft has been outstanding, with some jaw-dropping catches en route to 471 receiving yards and a touchdown. “He’s a wide receiver in a tight end body,” said Panther coach Matt Rhule. “He can be physical, he can be fast, he can do it all. He’s kind of a generational talent.”
The Panthers third ranked defense will be tasked with slowing Pitts and company down. Defense hasn’t been the Panthers problem, though – it’s the offense that has been awful recently. The good news is they’ll face a Falcons defense that has its own issues. They’ve only managed 10 sacks this season, that’s 30th in the league, and they’re 29th in the league giving up over 29 points a game. They’re running a 3-4 base scheme now, anchored by All-Pro defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones is a playmaker, and fellow backer Foye Oluokon ranks 8th in the NFL in tackles. They’ll catch a break with Panthers star running back Christian McCaffrey once again on the sidelines.
Sam Darnold and the Panthers passing attack will face a Falcons defense that allowed a league worst 294 passing yards per game last season. They’re a little better this season thanks to the additions of veterans Fabian Moreau, Erik Harris and Duron Harmon, plus former Clemson standout AJ Terrell is back.
On paper this game doesn’t look very exciting but it is no doubt an hugely important one for the Panthers. They’re taking on one of their biggest rivals, it’s a division game, and most importantly, they want to put an end to their four game losing streak. How do they do that? “Everybody has to step up and do better,” said Reddick. “We all know it, from players, coaches, whatever it is. “Everybody has to step up and do better so that way we can get the job done.”
by Sharon Thorsland
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