Panthers-Falcons Preview

The Atlanta Falcons can talk all they want about how positive

they remain despite a disappointing start. What they need is to

turn that alleged confidence into some victories.

Looking to bounce back from another disappointing defeat, the

Falcons could face another stiff challenge Sunday when they host

the improving Carolina Panthers in rookie quarterback Cam Newton’s

first professional game in his home state.

Saddled with lofty expectations, Atlanta (2-3) has already lost

as many games this season as it did while going 13-3 in 2010. An

inconsistent offense and an underachieving defense can summarize

the Falcons’ rough start, but that’s not enough to set the reigning

NFC South champs into panic mode.

Not even after they were outscored 19-0 in the second half of a

25-14 home loss to undefeated Green Bay in a playoff rematch last

Sunday.

“Certainly you have expectations to go out and play well,”

quarterback Matt Ryan said. “We haven’t done that. But it’s a long

year. We’re at that point where we’ve done some things really well,

but we’ve also done some things poorly. We’ve got to feed off those

positive things.”

Ryan’s play has contributed to his team’s early struggles. The

fourth-year signal caller has a 79.9 passer rating and has thrown

six interceptions – three fewer than he threw all of last season,

when he posted a career-high 91.0 rating.

“I need to play better,” Ryan said. “All our guys need to play

better. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Ryan’s 196 attempts rank third in the NFL behind pass-happy

quarterbacks Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Not exactly what coach Mike

Smith envisioned from an offense he expected to be balanced.

Michael Turner has rushed for 360 yards but only 146 over the

last three games.

An offensive line that could be without injured center Todd

McClure (knee) for a fourth time this season has not only struggled

in run blocking but also has yielded 14 sacks.

Top receiver Roddy White’s 32 receptions are tied for second in

the NFL, but he has just two touchdowns.

All of that has caused a team that ranked fifth with 25.9 points

per game last year, to be currently ranked 21st at 20.8 per

contest.

“We’re just not clicking,” White said. “We’re not where we need

to be right now. But it’s only the sixth game of the season. We’ve

got nothing to do but get better. I’m trying to look at the bright

side.”

Typically, facing Carolina (1-4) would provide a ray of hope.

Atlanta won both 2010 meetings with the Panthers by scores of

31-10, and has taken three straight in the series at the Georgia

Dome.

Turner has averaged 102.4 yards and rushed for nine TDs in his

last five games versus Carolina. Ryan has thrown for 1,166 yards

with seven touchdowns and four interceptions while the Falcons have

won four of five overall from the Panthers.

However, things might not come so easily for the Falcons in

2011. Though the Panthers have just one victory, all five of their

games have been decided by seven points or fewer.

Offensively, Atlanta will be without talented rookie receiver

Julio Jones because of a hamstring injury. Defensively, a unit that

ranks 24th with 26.0 points allowed per game must find a way to

contain Newton.

The dynamic No. 1 overall draft pick, who grew up just south of

Atlanta in College Park, Ga., leads all quarterbacks with five

rushing touchdowns – one shy of tying the Panthers single-season

record. Add in his 13 passing scores, and he’s had a hand in 12 of

the team’s 13 touchdowns.

Newton’s abilities through the air or on the ground obviously

pose a challenge for the Falcons.

“It creates a lot of issues because in your preparation for most

teams, more often than not, you don’t have to account for the

quarterback (as a runner),” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “That

really is the issue it creates for coordinators.”

While Newton appears to be a budding superstar, the Panthers

still must learn to win.

They held a late four-point lead against New Orleans last

weekend but allowed the Saints to score with 50 seconds left and

lost 30-27.

“We’re real close, but close doesn’t get you nowhere,” Newton

said. “And that’s probably the most disheartening thing, knowing

how close we are to getting that win and putting us back on the

map.”

Veteran wideout Steve Smith has been a favorite Newton with 609

receiving yards – second in the NFL. Smith, who has already

surpassed his yardage total (554) from 2010, has caught 16 balls

for 299 yards in his last two games at the Georgia Dome.