Carolina Panthers (6-8) at Atlanta Falcons (7-7)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Curt Menefee, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa
SERIES: 24th meeting. Falcons lead series 15-8. The Falcons ran for 252 yards in a 20-6 win over the Panthers in the season opener at Bank of America Stadium. That was the second-most ever surrendered by the Panthers on the ground. The stretch plays and zone blocking schemes really threw the Panthers for a loop. In the game, Carolina lost linebacker Dan Morgan, left tackle Travelle Wharton and center Justin Hartwig to season-ending injuries.
2006 RANKINGS: Panthers: offense 18th (27th rush, 11th pass); defense 10th (14th rush, 10th pass). Falcons: offense 10th (1st rush, 32nd pass); defense 22nd (10th rush, 31st pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: QB Michael Vick might be limited somewhat in his scrambling ability by a sore groin, but the Falcons do expect rookie RB Jerious Norwood to return to share the rushing load with Warrick Dunn. The Panthers' run defense tends to fade as games wear on, and their line is thinner with DE Mike Rucker lost for the season. That also impacts Carolina's pass rush and allows Atlanta to focus even more on Julius Peppers on the other side. Vick is coming off a strong passing game and will certainly take shots against a Panthers secondary that is finally starting to recover from several players battling hamstring injuries. QB Chris Weinke is expected to get his third consecutive start in place of injured Jake Delhomme, and has yet to create much chemistry with WRs Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson.
FAST FACTS: Panthers: Smith has caught at least seven passes in each of the past three meetings. ... Defense leads the NFC, allowing just 4.53 yards on first down. Falcons: PK Morten Andersen has 538 career field goals, one shy of Gary Anderson's all-time record. ... Vick needs 10 rushing yards to become the first quarterback with 1,000 in a season.
--QB Jake Delhomme did not throw on Thursday. Look for Chris Weinke to start again this week at Atlanta.
--DE Al Wallace will get the start for the Panthers in place of Mike Rucker. There isn't much of a drop off from Rucker to Wallace, who is still an experienced player some feel could start for other teams.
--DE Stanley McClover, a seventh-round pick out of Auburn, is expected to see his first NFL action as a professional on Sunday when the Panthers visit the Atlanta Falcons.
--LB Thomas Davis could be asked to spy on Falcons quarterback Michael Vick on Sunday. Davis was effective in that role last year against the Falcons in two Carolina wins. However, the Falcons ran so well against Carolina in the season opener it almost nullified any effect the speedy linebacker had in rushing the passer or containing Vick.
--WR Drew Carter is questionable with an ankle injury, which could take away one of Carolina's weapons in the passing game.
--WR Steve Smith could struggle again Sunday with cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Smith hasn't scored in the past two games with Chris Weinke at quarterback and the two don't seem to have a great chemistry.
--DE John Abraham sat out practice for a second consecutive day, still dealing with a painful thumb injury that required surgery to insert a pin on Monday. Abraham is expected to practice on Friday, and is listed as questionable.
--RB Jerious Norwood, who missed the Dallas game with a knee injury he suffered the week before against Tampa Bay, appeared to have a little extra bounce in his step on Thursday. At the end of special teams practice, he engaged in a race with LB DeMorrio Williams, and after an even run for about 50-yards, Norwood pulled away at the end. Norwood hasn't missed practice since re-injuring the knee he originally banged up versus Baltimore, and remains listed as probable on the injury report.
--CB Jason Webster, who has missed the last six games due to a groin tear, continues to work with the scout team in practice. The seven-year veteran is still trying to work himself back into playing shape and is questionable to see action against Carolina.
--QB Michael Vick, who's listed as probable, was more involved in practice then he was on Wednesday, showing no visible signs of being hampered by the groin he injured Saturday night against Dallas.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The quarterback and the offensive coordinator are always the first to hear the brunt of criticism when an offense is struggling. It's no different in Carolina, where the Panthers have suffered through an unproductive season, watching their scoring output drop by more than eight points per game since 2005.
Jake Delhomme has endured his fair share of criticism, but with the Panthers scoring a combined 16 points the last two weeks in his absence under backup Chris Weinke and losing 37-3 to the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday, the finger pointing has turned almost exclusively at offensive coordinator Dan Henning.
On Wednesday, coach John Fox defended Henning and said his overall body of work over five seasons with the Panthers has been pretty strong.
"I can understand the fans' frustrations," Fox said. "But the coaches have the same frustrations and the players have the same frustrations. Sitting here at 6-8, that is frustrating. I can only tell you that it's the same plays that almost won us a Super Bowl and took us to an NFC Championship game. So I don't think (the coaching staff) became village idiots overnight."
The complaints coming from fans on message boards and sports talk radio are that Henning is too conservative and that, among other things, he runs too many draw plays on second-and-long.
"If anything, we haven't been conservative enough. A lot of the time situations and circumstances tailor it that way," Fox said.
The reality of the situation is Henning calls the type of game Fox wants him to call, which is based on ball control, establishing the run and relying on great defense to keep scores low.
As long as Fox is here, there will be no run-and-shoot or spread offense and the Panthers will likely never be among the league leaders in points scored or total yardage. And that's OK, as long as they're winning. Over the previous four seasons, they were, for the most part, doing that and the philosophy worked.
This year, not so much.
There often are no holes for the running backs to run through, and that has allowed defenses to focus their attention on clamping down on Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith. As a result, this offense ranks 18th in the league in total yards per game (315.4) and 27th in points per game (16.4). The running game has been particularly bad and ranks 27th overall averaging 97.9 yards per game.
One obvious reason for the drop in production is the injuries to the offensive line.
The Panthers lost starting left tackle Travelle Wharton and center Justin Hartwig on opening day and were forced to move Jordan Gross from his comfort zone at right tackle over to left tackle, a position he simply doesn't play as well.
"I think the nuts and bolts of any offense is the offensive line, whether it be pass blocking or run blocking," Fox said. "The key word there is blocking and neither (passing or running) are very successful when you (have to shuffle the offensive line around). Anytime you have injuries that affect the continuity there's no question that has been a factor. Is that the only factor? That's hard to say. But it does become a factor."
It may be happening a little bit later than originally planned, but rookie cornerback Jimmy Williams will start and be heavily involved in the Falcons' base defense on Sunday against the Panthers.
The team's top 2006 draft pick -- a second round selection out of Virginia Tech -- Williams has been a part of Atlanta's nickel packages, and also in "U" formations when the opposition employs two-back, two-tight end sets.
At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Williams brings much needed size to the Falcons' secondary, especially with Carolina's Keyshawn Johnson lining up at wide receiver on the other side of the field.
Return specialist Allen Rossum has performed admirably at corner in filling in for the injured Jason Webster (groin), but the size differential that the diminutive Rossum has surrendered to opposing receivers has become glaring, and was further magnified in his match-up with Terry Glenn during last Saturday's loss to the Cowboys.
When Williams was drafted, the overall plan for the Falcons organization was to bring him along slowly and apprentice under Webster before eventually taking over the starting slot. That plan went awry when Williams severely sprained his ankle the day after Webster suffered his groin tear.
As a result, Rossum was thrown into the mix as the starter at right cornerback. Meanwhile, Williams was slow in recovering from the high ankle sprain and missed four games before returning with a splash against Tampa Bay, where he accounted for six solo tackles.
As opposed to the season opener, when the Panthers were without the injured Steve Smith and Falcons left corner DeAngelo Hall could solely concentrate on Johnson, Smith is back this time. Therefore, with Hall manning up on Smith in a battle of Pro Bowlers, Williams will get the assignment on the savvy, physical Johnson.
It should be an interesting and colorful match-up between a possible Hall of Fame candidate known for his willingness to trash talk, and an up-and-coming defensive back who also has no qualms about talking the talk, and walking the walk.