If only they showed this much heart in every game, right?
Against a good, but flawed Falcons team, it’s not that hard to see an angry, underachieving Panthers team beating the snot out of the Falcons at home. Unlike many times in the past, Carolina found a way to finish, putting 30 points on Atlanta, after a Thomas Davis INT on 4th down cut Atlanta to its knees. They then delivered a knockout with a nice screen play for a 56 yard TD with 4 minutes to go, to RB Deangelo Williams.
Carolina put up 475 yards offense on the then-11-1 Falcons, and seemed to do a lot of what it wanted on the field. 287 yards passing, 195 rushing. Even still, Carolina failed to fully establish a running game, getting more spurts from Cam Newton and Williams than consistently strong runs; the balance isn’t there that you might imagine for a team that had, at one point, a 23 point lead. The team went with strength and got an efficient 65% completion percentage from Newton, but still passed more than ran against a weak Atlanta front seven built to play pass.
OC Rob Chudzinski is still trying to hit the homerun on rushing plays than looking for the consistent 4-5 yards needed to sustain drives. Consequently, the rushes weren’t there that often, and many of them were on zone reads (like Newton’s longest run, a brilliant TD aided strongly by a massive set of blocks from Steve Smith) that net massive gains at times, but often leave Williams running for minimal gain, too. Another portion of that rushing day rested on Newton’s scrambling ability, running for a handful of third and long conversions and using a few more third downs to buy time to hit receivers.
For Newton, it was another strong game, but it came despite a few tough mistakes. Newton hit some tough throws, including the Greg Olsen TD to start the game; he also missed an open Steve Smith in the endzone, and overshot an open Louis Murphy down the sidelines. It’s hard to say that the overthrown screen balls to Mike Tolbert wouldn’t have been good gainers, too – Tolbert is a load in the open field. Still, Smith was able to hit 100 yards, if not the TD; he was targeted 12 times. Olsen’s the one that needs to get more attempts, catching 4 of his 5 and getting only a litle more than half of what Louis Murphy received in a rare start (5 rec of 9 targets).
Carolina’s defense, meanwhile, started strong – forcing a few early failed drives, notably a 3 and out on Atlanta’s first series. As the game wore on, however, Atlanta had answers – putting up 20 second half points after going scoreless in the first half; as well, Carolina fought hard but had what would essentially be considered an all-reserve defensive backfield against Atlanta’s no-huddle. Carolina, at one point, was using Haruki Nakamura, last game’s goat, with rookie DJ Campbell at safety, until Campbell himself went out with injury for special teamer Collin Jones; Charles Godfrey was active but never played. At corner, Josh Norman was benched mid-game, and that left Josh Thomas in with Captain Munnerlyn, and month-old waiver pickup James Dockery playing against starting Atlanta receivers. At times it worked- especially a few nice Campbell plays on TE Tony Gonzalez, but it also wore Carolina down and gave them more basic coverages. It even came with more blitzing, which was a bit shocking.
Up front, playing without Dwan Edwards this week and Ron Edwards the rest of the year, the front struggled in tackling and run defense, but limited the Atlanta run game to 11 attempts, 35 yards because of the circumstakes of a quick 10 point lead. Charles Johnson, officially, had one assist and no pressure from the nfl.com listings, but hit the QB twice and flushed him once on the Frank Kearse sack. The official listing also shows Greg Hardy with a sack and three pressures.
Hardy has officially become the player that people asked for when suggesting Steve Smith’s intensity with Julius Peppers’ ability. That might stretch things a little bit – Hardy isn’t as athletic, and certainly didn’t time as fast, but had first round talent coming out and now seems to take his training much more seriously. And when he turns it on, as he has recently (9 sacks in 10 games), he has that Smith intensity (Smith’s also wavers a bit, recently taking to picking on any DB he can try to bait into a shoving fight). Hardy’s pregame (and then postgame) comments all but willed the team to victory, but could be very costly in the future, too.
Statistically, Luke Kuechly’s total 16 tackles rates highest on defense; Thomas Davis kicks in 7, an INT and deflected pass; Dockery’s 6 tackles in an unofficial debut was interesting. Hardy’s 4 tackles go with his rush numbers. More oddly, while Jason Phillips likely played less due to Atlanta’s spread usage, he only received 1 assist as starting SLB.