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Sunday, November 23, 2008

v/s Atlanta, 11/22/08

Carolina took Atlanta (then 2-1) handily early in the year, 24-9, at Carolina earlier in the year. Atlanta gave up 400 yards of Carolina offense and didn't find the endzone.

The rematch is a slight favorite toward Atlanta (-1) at the Georgia Dome, a fact that has Carolina (especially their defense) very unhappy. 6-4 coming into this week, the Falcons are coming off a four point loss to Denver.

Defense

Atlanta's still dominated offensively by its run game, a key for Mike Mularkey in moving the chains and managing rookie QB Matt Ryan's throws. They rank 2nd rushing the football, with Michael Turner almost at 1000 yards already (4.6 avg, 9 TDs). Last matchup saw Ryan with 150 yards passing, his second lowest total of the season. Since then, he's averaged 242 yards per game. He's finding Roddy White with regularity - White is on pace to eclipse his 83 rec/1200 yd 2007 performance.

Turner gets the bulk of the carries, and Mularkey tries to get his backs 35 touches a game. Turner rarely gets the ball against the pass, since if he's in for passes he's the playaction decoy; more likely pass attempts give you Jerious Norwood (7 rush/3 catch per game), the speedy change of pace. Don't expect to see much of Norwood rushing, as the Falcons will attempt to push the larger Turner on the small Carolina defense.

Turner gains most off left tackle - where Todd Weiner has replaced an ailing Sam Baker. Weiner himself is questionable with knee concerns, leaving midseason retread Wayne Gandy possibly starting. Turner gains 5.2 yards/carry off left tackle, and the Falcons give their highest amount of carries (18%) off left tackle. They use TE Ben Hartsock (6'4, 265) on that side often, and will use him a lot this week to help on Julius Peppers. Hartsock isn't a receiving threat at all, but is an able blocker.

Carolina comes in ranked 17th against the run, having had some recent gap control issues, but have held numerous high-ranked runners to low yardage totals. Turner had 56 yards against Carolina on 18 carries, a mediocre 3.1 yards per carry average. Turner's third in the league in rush yards, but most of his yards have come on bad teams - Tampa, Chicago, Carolina, and Philadelphia have stuffed Turner, whereas he's rolled against Detroit, KC, Green Bay, and Oakland.

Turner's an opportunistic runner moreso than an explosive one, in that he rarely bounces outside and it rarely works. Teams let him get a lane inside and he makes it happen there, but he doesn't create. Staying in your gaps, staying at home, and playing contain, should let you take on Turner well. Norwood ripped off one long run to get the Falcons over 100 yards rushing, but there was holding on the play that wasn't called on an outside defender.

In the previous matchup, Atlanta was able to successfully use the hurry-up offense to success, but only had a few plays scripted. On the 2nd series, the Falcons put together their longest drive this way - a 12 play drive that ended in a FG, that the Falcons ran no-huddle out of 9 times. Once the game was over ten points, most of Ryan's snaps were in shotgun. Look for more this week - Carolina has struggled with no-huddle, though it's uncertain why. The Panthers aren't heavy up front, they don't rely intensely on substitution, and there's not a lot of age on the defense. They're not unaware, either. In the end, Ryan's no-huddle plays from last game were scripted plays, and they will probably not put this much on a rookie QB right now. They also won't abandon the run for it if possible.

Ryan essentially finds White twice as much as any other receiver. White had 7 receptions for 90 yards, the longest a 23 yarder that Charles Godfrey wasn't in position to defend. Ken Lucas had 2 PD in this matchup, and generally held a very good receiver in check.

Facing Chris Gamble, 2nd receiver Michael Jenkins has 29 receptions, 3 TD, and 450 yards, almost exactly half of each of White's stats. Unlike White, Jenkins is more situational deep, using the 6'4 receiver to shield the ball and excel in jump ball situations they're not going to repeat often. He does have some short skill, but lacks the route running and polished nature to make this happen often. Last game, Jenkins had 3 rec/32 yards. Next receiver after that is Norwood at 24 rec, with 3rd receiver Brian Finneran's 13 receptions barely edging out FB Harry Douglas' 12. Finneran is another big receiver, but not explosive, and the Falcons tend to keep things in base Pro formations to keep the run game in play. The base defense should be the primary concern - and Atlanta only converted 15% of 3rd downs last game.

Carolina's defense held last game - they're owed a TD from that opening series play brought back - they had 7 tackles for loss, two sacks, and batted 7 balls. They made plays last time and kept composure from start to finish, and will need this and more this week. Because of the deep nature of their pass game and the play-action game, the Panthers' safeties need to stay deep and alert; the DL needs to stay in gaps and not try to twist around to make plays.

Offense

The trend on Atlanta's defense isn't faring as well as its offense - aside from the 77 yard impressive performance against the Raiders, they've given up 408, 361, 432 yards in the games before; it gave up 520 yards against New Orleans two weeks ago and 330 in the loss to Denver. Atlanta's given up over 350 yards passing in half of their games this year. They come into this week raned 23rd on defense, 22nd on both pass and run individually. Carolina's offense, of course, has struggled as well, relying on a few big plays but posting only 150 yards across the two games against Oakland and Detroit. This underscores how the other side of the ball - Atlanta Offense v/s Carolina Defense - is the key matchup, but the Carolina Offense v/s Atlanta Defense is probably where the game is won for either side.

Atlanta's run defense is small, and to add to their 22nd rating versus the pass, they're 28th in yards/attempt. Carolina had 57 yards from Deangelo Williams and 52 (with a TD) from Jonathan Stewart in what would be considered a prototype performance from their running game in a 15 point win. Carolina had success running inside and out, and should have success running on the strong side off end and off tackle. Sealing inside and kicking out left end Jamaal Anderson shouldn't be difficult, and the Falcons' LBs aren't great in pursuit right now. Williams should be able to turn the corner as necessary, and both backs should have success breaking tackles on the outside as they did last game. Look for a few more pitchouts, and expect to see more ATL blitzing inside on run downs.


Muhsin Muhammad had his best game of the year here beating up on Brent Grimes, who's since been replaced in the lineup, for 8 receptions, 142 yards, and a score. Steve Smith had 6/96 and a score on Chris Houston, who he'll face this week. Dominique Foxworth is now the other starter, and isn't more physically imposing than Grimes but doesn't make as many mistakes. Slightly more physical, Foxworth won't make plays on the ball worth shielding the ball from him, so Delhomme should be able to force the ball in when needed.

Carolina did go to secondary receivers despite their success throwing downfield - DJ Hackett, Dante Rosario, and Williams each got 2 receptions from an offense that has so far featured just the starting WR. Rookie LB Curtis Lofton has been a bright spot, but at 6', 248 isn't a coverage threat. Aging Keith Brooking and veteran Michael Boley are on the outside, and each have been underwhelming the past few weeks. This trio can be exposed, though SS Lawyer Milloy does come up into the box often as well. It depends on what they feel like they want to cover, and with any awareness, Delhomme should be able to distribute the ball well.

The Falcons had 5 tackles for loss last game; they registered no sacks. Carolina was able to neutralize the Falcons' smallish DL and influence the one large member (Grady Jackson, at RDT) most of the time. Travelle Wharton does draw another heavy assignment in Jackson, and can't let him slip by as he did on the one tackle for loss. Likewise, Jordan Gross earns his money today against John Abraham. Carolina's OL has only 13 sacks on the year, remarkable given that five were against Minnesota. 8.5 of those sacks are attributable to linemen, and none have more than two (Gross, Otah, and backup C Hangartner).

But expect more blitzing this week. Foxworth's presence, while not as imposing as you might figure from the team's reaction to how they're using him, has left the Falcons blitzing and playing man coverage behind it more often. Abraham does have 11 sacks, and you'll probably see him stunting inside or moving around more to keep from being doubled. Still, Abraham and 2nd year Jamaal Anderson combined for just two tackles last game. Abraham did block the bobbled-snap punt, however.


Special Teams

Ageless kicker Jason Elam is the team's top scorer, having hit 21 of 23 so far including 1 of 2 from 50+. Michael Koenen is punting at a 38.9 average, with a mediocre 36.8 net.

Norwood is the kick returner, at a solid 26.4 per kick average, averaging 18 last game v/s Carolina; Adam Jennings averaged 12 yards on two punts. Rhys Lloyd had three touchbacks last game.
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