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ESPN Preview - ATL vs CAR


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CAR: QB, WR, Defense (DL, LB, DB), ST, Coach

The Falcons, who trail the Panthers by two games in the NFC South, need a win to stay in the thick of the playoff hunt. By picking off a division rival on the road, Carolina can take a big step toward its goal of winning the division. Both teams' coaches rely on similar formulas for success: run the ball, play good defense and capitalize on field position with solid special teams play. The Panthers have taken care of business against lesser competition in recent weeks, but the Falcons are a tough opponent (especially playing in the Georgia Dome) with plenty to lose.

When Carolina has the ball

In the last few weeks, the Panthers have relied heavily on the duo of RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to control the clock and wear down opposing defenses. It's a game plan that coach John Fox prefers, and why wouldn't he when his offensive line is opening holes as wide as those the backs enjoyed against the Lions last week? The revamped offensive line is controlling the line of scrimmage and allowing Williams and Stewart opportunities to make plays.

The challenge for Atlanta will be, obviously, to shut down the run game -- but while also preventing the big play downfield to WR Steve Smith off play-action. QB Jake Delhomme had a season-low 19 pass attempts against Detroit, a week after a poor performance in Oakland. But that trend may end this week. The Falcons' secondary will have a difficult time covering Smith, particularly if the defensive front isn't able to generate good pressure on Delhomme.

When Atlanta has the ball

The Falcons will try to find weaknesses in the Panthers' defense and exploit them with the power of RB Michael Turner and speed of RB Jerious Norwood. A strong ground game will take pressure off rookie QB Matt Ryan, wear down Carolina's defense and keep Williams, Stewart and their offensive line from doing the same to Atlanta's own defense. Turner has been exceptional all season, running with vision, lower-body strength, balance and acceleration. Norwood has the explosive ability to create big plays as a runner or receiver out of the backfield.

Panthers defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac likely will try to force the Falcons to run laterally. By slanting his defensive fronts and aggressively bringing his linebackers up to the line of scrimmage, Trgovac can take away running angles and stifle the quickness in and out of the hole of Atlanta's backs. If the Falcons find it difficult to pound inside, incorporating some misdirection runs early in the game could help beat the Panthers' defensive overloads and run blitzes.

Matchup to watch

Panthers LT Jordan Gross vs. Falcons DE John Abraham

Abraham ranks among the league leaders in sacks (tied for third, with 11) due to his explosiveness off the ball and edge speed around the corner. Gross must remain balanced in his pass sets and show excellent hand use to keep Abraham squared up and avoid being set up for countermoves. Gross could get extra help if he struggles early, which would create better opportunities for other Falcons pass rushers in the form of single-blocking matchups. When the Panthers run, Gross will have the advantage due to his size and strength. Abraham is very quick, but when Gross locks on he should be able to seal the corner or create movement.

Keys to Success - CAR

1. Force the Falcons to throw: One of the most important aspects of the game will be which team is more successful in shutting down the opponent's run game. The Panthers have very good speed at linebacker in Thomas Davis, Jon Beason and Na'il Diggs. They also have good tacklers in the secondary, with SS Chris Harris taking good angles to his targets and forcing the ball loose on contact. The cornerbacks also will need to be quick in run support. CBs Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas are willing tacklers who can make plays on the perimeter, but they will need to be sound in holding the force from the outside.

2. Use Smith to free up others: The threat of WR Steve Smith making plays on the perimeter consistently draws the attention of opposing defenses. He is often paid double-team attention, which can have an effect on his numbers from week to week. But just his presence can go a long way toward creating opportunities for others. WRs Muhsin Muhammad and D.J. Hackett and TE Jeff King need to make plays when the Falcons commit extra coverage defenders to stopping Smith.

3. Prevent big plays in the passing game: Carolina's secondary generally keeps downfield plays to a minimum, but that group will be challenged by the speed and quickness of WR Roddy White and the size and adjustment skills of WRs Michael Jenkins and Brian Finneran. If the Panthers' defensive front can force quick throws from Ryan, the defensive backs can use their excellent pattern recognition and ball skills to jump routes and make plays. Aggressive outside coverage and the tight mirror skills of Carolina's corners at break points will test Ryan's accuracy.

Keys to Success - ATL

1. Hurry up on offense: The Falcons have a lot of confidence in Ryan, and the offense has had some success in no-huddle from time to time this season. Atlanta could force an up-tempo pace, with Ryan getting up to the line of scrimmage quickly and running plays in succession to wear down Carolina's defense. The Falcons also would give themselves an edge by limiting defensive substitutions, forcing quick defensive calls and, ideally, forcing the Panthers to burn timeouts when they spot an unfavorable personnel matchup.

2. Keep pounding away: When a team has running backs as talented and dynamic as those in Atlanta, it only makes sense to keep the offense grounded as much as possible. The key for the Falcons will be in how they react to Carolina's run defense. The ability to recognize run blitzes quickly will be very important for Atlanta in this game. If the Falcons can catch the Panthers off guard, the opportunity for big plays will be available -- as the Lions discovered last week.

3. Win the battle for field position: Both of these clubs have solid special teams, specifically in their ability to pin an opponent deep and force their offense to sustain long drives to put points on the board. It will be extremely important for the Falcons' kickoff and punt return units to open up seams and create running room for the returners against a Panthers team that specializes in playing the field-position game.

Scouts Edge

There are a lot of similarities between these teams. Both rely on similar philosophies, and each has explosive playmakers at running back and wide receiver. Both offenses make plays downfield off play-action, with WRs Steve Smith (Carolina) and Roddy White (Atlanta) putting a lot of stress on opponents' coverage schemes. But with a more experienced quarterback in Delhomme and superior defensive personnel, Carolina has the edge in this matchup.


Carolina 23

Atlanta 20

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Well Delhome may have more experience but Ryan is easily playing like the more experienced of the two.

I think we should stack the line on D and force CAR to throw. Overload Abe's side and let him get 1-1 to create pressure, quick decisions and, hopefully, a few turnovers.

I agree. We must stop their running game. Do not allow them to get one going at all. Force Delhomme to pass and unleash Abe. Delhomme has been playing pretty bad as of late, so we can rattle him into making mistakes.

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