FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – It’s never good when one team’s weakness aligns with its opponent’s strength.
That’s the situation the Carolina Panthers are in this week when they visit the Atlanta Falcons and the Georgia Dome on Sunday for the Falcons’ first NFC South game of the season.
The 3-0 Falcons rank third in the NFL in scoring at 31.3 points per game while Carolina ranks among the bottom third in the league in defense. Carolina ranks 24th in total defense, allowing 383 yards per game, and is tied for 23rd in scoring defense (26.3 points per game).
The Panthers also are tied for 27th in third-down efficiency (46 percent), which is one of Panthers coach Ron Rivera’s primary concerns. In a humbling 36-7 loss at home to the New York Giants last Thursday, the Panthers allowed the Giants to convert 7 of 14 third downs.
“I think if you look at some of the things we’ve struggled with, we’ve had problems,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said of third downs. “We’ve got to be better…. We have situations where we’ve got teams backed up and a chance to get off the field and we give up a play or two here and next thing you know we’ve got them out of a hole or they’re crossing the 50.”
The Panthers are starting two rookies on defense – Josh Norman at the right cornerback and outside linebacker Luke Kuechly – and middle linebacker Jon Beason, a two-time All-Pro, is coming back after a season-ending knee injury last year. Beason did not practice on Wednesday with a knee injury. (Jason Phillips is listed as the back on the depth chart.)
Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said the Panthers have skill on defense but have made their share of mistakes.
“They got a lot of speed out there, I can tell you that,” he said. “One of the things they struggle with is just crossing routes and things like that, passing things off, a couple of blown coverages and stuff like that. You kind of have them early in the season and after that, you get away from that and everybody gets settled in and that stops happening.”
Whether the Panthers can sort that out in time for Sunday remains to be seen but at least they will have had extra practice time from playing on Thursday.
“I definitely think it’s been beneficial to have that time off,” said linebacker Thomas Davis, the former Georgia standout, now a reserve. “To get guys healthy and get your legs back fresh and look forward to take on the rest of this season, (we’re) definitely looking to go out and be more competitive this week and be more competitive against Atlanta.”
That idea of being more competitive was Rivera’s central message to the Panthers following the loss to the Giants. Entering that game, the Panthers had defeated defending division champion New Orleans. Carolina has become something of a trendy pick as a potential playoff team and the win over the Saints served to underscore that.
But Rivera, in his second year, was unsure of how his young team would react to playing in the spotlight: at home, on national television against the defending Super Bowl champions. He noted that Norman, who played at Coastal Carolina, told him during training camp at the team’s fan fest that the crowd was the biggest he had ever played in front of.
The verdict was not good.
“It’s one of those things where we haven’t been on a big stage like that in a long time where a night game meant so much,” said Rivera, whose franchise has not had a winning record since 2008. “We played a Thursday night game at home against the defending National Football League champions. It was a great opportunity for us to make a statement and we didn’t. We didn’t compete very well. That was my message to the team, ‘Guys, this is a great opportunity. We were put on a big stage, we were in awe.’
“I said, ‘Hey, if we get an opportunity to be in the playoffs, this is what it’s going to be like. You’re going to be on the big stage, you’re going to be playing against a very good football team so we better learn how to handle these things and compete better.’”
That next opportunity comes against the Falcons, who are firing on all cylinders right now. Falcons head coach Mike Smith said his team puts more weight on division games.
“We’ve had some really good battles with Carolina,” he said. “They’re one of our biggest rivals and most of the games we’ve played have come down to five or six plays. I’m preparing in my mind that that’s what it’s going to be.
“In terms of where they’re at as a football team, where we’re at, we’re going to focus on what we’ve got to do and that’s get prepared because they’ve got some weapons on the offensive side of the football that we’ve got to be ready to take care of.”
But it’s the Falcons offense against the Panthers defense that could prove decisive.