The Atlanta Falcons will finally take on an opponent outside of the AFC West in Week 4. The Carolina Panthers roll into town Sunday looking to hand the Falcons their first loss of 2012 and avenge the sweep they suffered at the hands of the Dirty Birds last season.
Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan are fitting in nicely after three weeks, helping both sides of the ball reach new heights and combine to make one of the toughest teams in the NFL in 2012. Matt Ryan is making a case for MVP, while Thomas DeCoud, William Moore and the rest of the Falcons defense continues to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks.
The Panthers looked awful in Week 3 as they were dominated by the reigning Super Bowl champions. They haven’t been able to defeat the Falcons at the Georgia Dome since Sept. 23, 2007, but they will surely be ready to challenge their NFC South foe this time around. Here’s a look at what you should watch for this weekend.
Protecting Matt Ryan: It’s no secret the Falcons offensive line has been vital to the 3-0 start. Ryan faced a little more pressure in San Diego, but overall pass protection looks much better. Sam Baker is actually living up to the expectations set for him when he was drafted, a sign that bodes well for this team’s success moving forward. The Panthers have Charles Johnson and Frank Alexander currently rated as the team’s leader in pass rush, according to Pro Football Focus. While these two attack from the edge, Dwan Edwards generates solid pressure from the interior, as he’s already recorded four sacks on the year. New York handled Carolina’s front line easily this past week, and if Atlanta does the same the undefeated record will remain in tact.
Building on the ground game: Don’t let up now. Atlanta finally managed to create room for Michael Turner to run against San Diego. The Burner showed flashes of his former self, rushing for 80 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Last season Turner tallied up 139 yards on the ground at home against the Panthers, and it appears their run defense hasn’t improved much in 2012. Carolina is yielding a ridiculous 139.3 rush yards per game right now. Atlanta needs to take advantage here, especially if Jon Beason is unable to play, leaving an even bigger gap in the middle of Carolina’s defense.
Getting pressure on Cam Newton: The Giants did not make life easy for Newton in Week 3. New York finished Thursday night in Carolina with three sacks, three hits and eight hurries, forcing three interceptions from a rushed Newton. The Falcons defense jumped all over the Chargers offensive line last week, recording a total of 17 hurries of Philip Rivers. While they only brought him down for one sack on the afternoon, it was obvious Rivers didn’t have any time to throw. Nolan needs to continue generating plenty of pressure to rattle Newton in Week 4.
Jonathan Stewart’s affect on the Panthers offense: Carolina has two losses in 2012. Two of them have come without Stewart in the lineup. Think he doesn’t make a difference with this team? Stewart is a more versatile back than DeAngelo Williams, providing a solid receiving outlet in the backfield. He always looks to be just one key block away from breaking to the end zone. Last season he rushed for 48 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta at home, and with Newton struggling as of late, he’ll probably be relied on to help rejuvenate the offense. The Falcons need to keep two eyes on Stewart.