After a costly win over the Cowboys that resulted in key injuries to Daryl Williams and Greg Olsen, the Panthers hit the road to Atlanta confident in their defense if nothing else.
A dominant effort that held the Cowboys offense to a net 60 yards through the first half and just 94 total rushing yards for the game, there was a reason to feel excited about the run defense. However, with Julio Jones’ dominant 300-yard performance still etched in the memory of Panther players and fans, there was a focus on the secondary as the team prepared to face the divisional rival Falcons in hostile territory.
With James Bradberry blanketing Jones for much of the game, the Falcons found other ways to get the job done. Even without starter Devonta Freeman, the Falcons established the run game with Tevin Coleman and opened up the field for the pass game. Prior to Sunday, the Panthers had not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 21 games; Coleman finished with 107 yards. Ryan even got in on the rush action himself rushing for 2 touchdowns. In addition to the run game, Ryan was able to hit 7 targets not named Julio. Julio had 22 yards through the first half and 64 for the game. Rookie Calvin Ridley and tight end Austin Hooper finished with 64 and 59 yards respectively and both scored touchdowns.
On offense, quarterback Cam Newton was 32 for 45 and threw for 335 yards and 3 touchdowns in the losing effort. Rookie DJ Moore scored his first career touchdown on one of his two targets. Meanwhile, running back Christian McCaffrey was targeted 15 times and had 14 receptions, tying with Steve Smith’s franchise record for single game receptions. The fact that a running back was targeted more than the Devin Funchess, the WR1, raised some eyebrows and Ron Rivera attributed that to the fact that many of McCaffrey’s targets were the result of check downs. It had also been concern that rookie DJ Moore has not been incorporated into the offense as much as expected. That is something that Rivera is looking to change.
While Rivera expressed his disappointment in the defense as a whole, he is confident that many of Sunday’s issues are “correctable”. A bright spot on the defense was rookie defensive back Donte Jackson who recorded his first career interception as well as 6 solo tackles and a forced fumble before leaving the game in the 3rd quarter with a strained hamstring. Aside from a questionable pass interference call, Rivera thought his tackling was solid and applauded his recovery after Ridley’s touchdown.
With all of that said, the Panthers still had an opportunity to win the game. Newton’s deep shot to DJ Moore in the end zone was incomplete as time ran out.
After being nonexistent against the Falcons, the pass rush will have its work cut out for them when the Cincinnati Bengals come to town on Sunday. Running back Gio Bernard and wide receiver AJ Green are legitimate ground and air threats. A repeat of last Sunday’s mistakes will almost certainly prove to be catastrophic against a Bengals team that is unbeaten in this early part of the season. The Bengals are ranked 4th in the league in scoring at 34 points a game and 7th in third-down efficiency while the Panthers are tied for 8th in points allowed at 19.5 per game. The Panthers defense will still be without starting linebacker Thomas Davis as he serves a four-game suspension for a PED violation.
Keys to Victory
It is often says that defense wins the game and the Panthers will need their defense to show up. Allowing the Bengals to establish a run game early will force the Panthers to respect the play-action and create a vulnerability through the air where quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver AJ Green can and will make them pay. Green went full on Madden-mode in the Bengals’ Thursday night contest against the Baltimore Ravens, scoring 3 touchdowns in just 17 minutes. Just a week after lining up across from Julio Jones, cornerback James Bradberry will once again have his work cut out for him. An effective pass rush can greatly assist the secondary in containing Green. Veteran defensive end Julius Peppers continues to work himself into playing shape according to Rivera and can definitely bolster the defensive unit if he is on the field more.
The Panthers need Moore – as in DJ Moore. The first round draft pick played only 17 of 67 offensive snaps against the Falcons and was only targeted twice – one which resulted in a 51-yard touchdown. In addition to his work on special teams, the Panthers will need to incorporate him more into the offensive game plan; something that Rivera acknowledged when addressing the media on Monday. Another underutilized offensive weapon is CJ Anderson. Anderson was a 1,000-yd rusher last season for the Denver Broncos but only had 3 carries and played only 8 snaps against the Falcons. It will also be a great opportunity for Devin Funchess to have a breakout game as the #1 wide receiver; a role he took on after the Panthers traded Kelvin Benjamin last season. The Bengals are ranked 30th in pass defense and have given up an average of 332 yards in the air through the first two games of the season.
Kickoff is set for 1:00pm EDT.