Scouting the Falcons

The Panthers open up their divional play against the Atlanta Falcons, a team riding a 3-0 winning streak and a team that has traditionally eaten the Panthers' lunch in the last 10 seasons. For the fist time in the Vick Era, the Panthers have their entire front seven healthy. Will the Panthers finally be able to contain Vick?

The Atlanta Falcons come into Carolina leading the NFC South, winners of their first three games for their best start since 1986. Atlanta won an ugly game against the Arizona Cardinals in week 3, a game that saw no touchdowns scored for either team despite ample opportunities for both teams. Nine fumbles, three of them by the Cardinals inside the Falcons' 20 yard line, and five official reviews marred this contest. "You can't really have the words to describe your disappointment when you lose a game and fumble that many times" said Arizona Head Coach Dennis Green.

Michael Vick, who single-handedly has defeated the Panthers in the past, was sacked five times, threw 1 interception, lost two fumbles, and was 10-20 passing for 115 yards. Despite his less-than-average performance, the Falcons still came out on top.

The Falcons only converted 2 of 10 third down opportunities, and only generated 89 net yards passing and 194 yards rushing, 68 of which from Vick (56 on one play).

In 3 games, Vick's quarterback rating is 81.1, completing 60.7% of his passes, earning 457 yards passing and 187 yards rushing. Vick has thrown 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in 3 games. Arizona was able to mostly contain Vick using 5 linemen and boxing him in. Look for Carolina to use a similar approach bringing up one of their linebackers in a similar fashion.

The Falcons defense, not the Panthers defense, will decide this game. The Falcons had 6 sacks, half of them from Patrick Kerney, in their win against Arizona. Carolina's offensive line was deplorable in week one against Green Bay, but fared better against the weak Kansas City defense. Traditionally, the Falcons defense has eaten Carolina's offense alive, but with the new coaching staff in place, the Falcons have switched from a 3-4 defense (three down linemen and 4 linebackers) to a more common 4-3 defense (four down linemen and 3 linebackers). This week, Kerney will be matched up against Panthers Right Tackle Matt Willig. Willig, who was forced into the lineup when Adam Meadows abruptly retired in training camp, has performed less than stellar. In their week 2 win against Kansas City, most of the successful running plays were to the left, behind Left Tackle Jordan Gross and Left Guard Tutan Reyes.

Of the Arizona Cardinals QB Josh McCown, Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney noted, "When (McCown) was doing more than three-step drops, we were putting some pretty heavy pops on him." Willig and the rest of the Panthers offensive line will have to give Delhomme ample time to make his reads and complete passes downfield.

A big key to the game will be Carolina's running game. If the Panthers can successfully run DeShaun Foster as they did against Kansas City, then that will allow the Panthers to be more free-wheeling with their passing game, mixing in the playaction passes to create favorable matchups for their wide receivers. Cornerback Kevin Mathis is overmatched against Muhsin Muhammad, and the Falcons will try to use zone coverages to try to even the match-up. Mathis lacks the size and strength to defend Muhammad deep, but is a decent short route defender. He often gets pushed around by bigger, more physical receivers like Muhammad and is a liability in the red zone. Panther Fans will remember Mathis as the recipient of the "stopped route" pass of 2003, where on a drive in overtime in the last meeting of the two teams, Muhsin Muhammad stopped on a short crossing route, Mathis over-pursued and ended up intercepting and scoring on a Jake Delhomme pass.

If the Panthers can protect Delhomme and produce with their running game, it will help keep Vick off the field. The Panthers desperately need to control the time of possession and limit Vick's opportunities to make plays. When Vick is on the field, he must be spied by Strong Safety Mike Minter. Vick is most dangerous outside the pocket, and it will be part of Minter's job to make sure his runs are kept to a minimum gain. If the Panthers force Vick to scramble and then contain him, they will win. If not, it will be another long day for Panthers fans against the Falcons.

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