Gameday preview: Atlanta Falcons vs Carolina Panthers

ATLANTA, GA- As the trade deadline passed and the Atlanta Falcons refused to fold under the pretense of receiving an extra draft pick, the pressure continues to build as the Carolina Panthers prepare to greet their division rival on Sunday, November 3, 1:00 p.m. at Bank of America Stadium.

This is the first meeting between these two teams this season and now the tables have seemingly been turned around a complete 180 degrees. Last year the Panthers had a similar problem to the Falcons. They couldn’t put together a complete game, whether it was on the offensive or defensive side of the ball. Now with a streak of three wins, each of these games the Panthers scored at least 30 points, the Falcons have a daunting task in attempting to dismantle Cam Newton and the confidence of this revitalized defense.

Cam Newton always takes the Falcons-Panthers rivalry seriously. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Cam Newton always takes the Falcons-Panthers rivalry seriously. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Key players

With Cam Newton is playing smarter football in the win streak. He realizes he doesn’t have to make every play into a highlight. In the last three games he has completed 58 out of 75 of his passes for 667 yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions. Also, coaches and fan alike have to realize that Newton may take this game more personally than others. Last year he stated that the Falcons-Panthers rivalry was still alive and kicking.

“It’s always a heavily critiqued game,” Newton said of the rivalry. “I’ve always been a Falcons fan, and I’m still a Falcons fan except for those two times a year.”

Greg Hardy, defensive end for the Panthers, also has a strong opinion in this interstate-85 rivalry. Last year Hardy was offended when an emotional Matt Ryan was caught by cameras when he said, “Get the f— off our field.”

In response he took the second meeting between the two teams personally in December. After a 20-30 victory over the Falcons he shouted the same insult directly at Ryan while the team was running off the field. Most of the team kept running but Matt Bryant, the kicker shouted back, “Enjoy watching us in January.” Hardy once again felt disrespected.

This back and forth could possibly be fuel for the defensive end. He already has five sacks and a forced fumble halfway through the season. Passion plus a personal vendetta against Ryan could spell a couple of sacks and a handful of pressures.

carolina panthers

Greg Hardy is on pace for 11 sacks this season. Must be the Bengal-style face paint. (Photo Credit: Jeff Siner)

Jonathan Stewart after having surgery done on both ankles and not playing in a game for 11 months, has suited up for the first time in November and simply stated, “I feel ready.” This comes at a good time for the Panthers as fellow running back DeAngelo Williams bruised his right thigh in the second half against Tampa Bay. The team indicates Williams will still play but it’s nice to have depth at such a crucial position.

The game plan

Last week we learned that Matt Ryan is going to have a bad game every once in a while. Keeping that in mind, the team cannot continue to trot him out there and drop back to pass 61 times and be successful. Steven Jackson was not give much of a chance to shake off the rust with only 11 carries for six yards.

I’ll run the risk of sounding like a broken record; the Falcons need to run the ball early and often. Ryan is indeed worth the money they are paying him if they offer him protection and, more importantly, fool defensive coordinators into playing incorrect personnel and taking advantage of mismatches on the defensive line and in the secondary. That’s what Ryan does best.

Mike Smith and his staff will have to stop saying the team needs to be more consistent and actually go back to the tape earlier in the season. Until the offensive and defensive front establish a presence at the line of scrimmage, other teams will have no fear as they openly set loose playmakers like Hardy and Jon Abraham for 20 plus snaps per game with practically no concern over losing outside containment.

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They also won’t forget the Falcons have difficulties stopping the run. After Andre Ellington ran for 154 yards on 15 attempts, 80 of which came on a single play, the Falcons are now ranked 22nd in the league at stopping guys on the ground. Akeem Dent was a bit banged up but returned to practice so hopefully he will help alleviate that stat line.

It is still unclear if star wide receiver Roddy White will return to this game suffering a hamstring injury during the Jets game in week five. He was cleared by team doctors and able to practice on Friday. His status may come down to a game time decision by the coaches. If he does indeed play, maybe this will be the spark to ignite Atlanta’s downtrodden season.

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