Panthers @ Falcons | What to Watch for in the Battle for the NFC South Lead
The Panthers head to Atlanta this Sunday coming off of a dominant win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After being favorites to get the #1 overall pick in the 2023 draft just a week ago, the Panthers now find themselves in a position to take the lead in their division. With the Buccaneers losing to the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night, a win against Atlanta would put the team in first place in the division, despite only having a 3-5 record. The NFC South is a weak division this year, giving the Panthers an opportunity to take the lead in it, even with a losing record.
Beating the Atlanta Falcons will not be an easy task though. Arthur Smith has led this team to a respectable 3-4 record, despite the deficiency of talent on the roster. Getting to 3-0 against division rivals this Sunday would be huge for the Panthers. Here are some factors that could determine whether or not the team gets the win.
It's PJ Walker Season!
PJ Walker will be getting another start in Atlanta after having the best performance we have seen from a Panthers quarterback in quite some time. After completing only one pass past the line of scrimmage against the Rams, Ben McAdoo let PJ cook against the Buccaneers. Walker showed off his arm strength in the win, completing 16 out of 22 passes for 2 touchdowns and zero interceptions. His presence brought new life to the team's offense. DJ Moore had his most productive game of the season, with 69 receiving yards and a 20 yard touchdown from Walker.
PJ Walker will now have another opportunity to show off his skills against a depleted Atlanta defense. The Falcons are likely going to be without both their starting cornerbacks, with AJ Terrell dealing with a hamstring injury and Casey Hayward on injury reserve. The Falcons also have a thin defensive line, with very little talent outside of defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. PJ Walker should have good protection in the pocket and good matchups for the receivers to work with due to Atlanta's deficiencies on defense. This game is a perfect opportunity for the quarterback to build upon a strong performance against Tampa Bay.
It's Bradley Bozeman Season!
Bradley Bozeman is finally in the starting lineup after Pat Elflien was placed on injury reserve. The former Ravens center has found himself on the bench for the first half of the season due to Matt Rhule's questionable decision to start Elflien instead. Bozeman was able to make the most of his opportunity, having a dominant performance against the Bucs.
The upgrade at center will help an already solid offensive line unit become even more dominant. The addition of Bradley Bozeman could make this group the best offensive line the Panthers have had in quite some time. Bozeman will get a chance to build upon his strong performance against the Buccaneers when he faces a relatively weak defensive line in Atlanta.
Can the young guys on offense step up?
Second year players Terrace Marshall and Tommy Tremble will be looking to become consistent weapons for this offense after finally making appearances in last week's win versus the Bucs. Terrace Marshall had 2 receptions for 31 yards, while Tommy Tremble had his first touchdown of the season with a 29 yard bomb from PJ Walker. The second and third round picks respectively have had quite disappointing production in the receiving game thus far this season, so it was nice to see those players finally making impactful plays for this offense.
Marshall and Tremble will have more pressure on them to step up with the departures of Robbie Anderson and Christian McCaffrey. Anderson and McCaffrey were two big contributors in the receiving game before they both got traded. With them gone, the Panthers will be looking for young players to step up and fill those voids. Terrace Marshall and Tommy Tremble both showed flashes to be able to step up as receivers against the Buccaneers. They will get an opportunity to build off of their good performances against a Falcons defense that is going to be without both of their starting corners. The two young players now both have an opportunity to earn a role in the team's offense moving forward; we will see whether or not they will be able to take advantage of their opportunities.
Can we get another dominant rushing performance?
Last Sunday saw the Panthers have their most dominant game on the ground against a very solid Buccaneers run defense. The rushing attack led by D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard had a total of 173 yards on the ground and a touchdown. The team will be hoping to maintain this rushing success against the Falcons.
The Panthers will have to do this without Chuba Hubbard, who is going to miss the game with an ankle injury. This means that D'Onta Foreman will be the primary running back on Sunday. Foreman accounted for 118 yards on the ground, including a 60 yard run, in the win against Tampa Bay. Behind Foreman will be undrafted rookie Raheem Blackshear, who has had a limited amount of carries and has primarily been a special teams player, and practice squad running back Spencer Brown, who will likely be elevated to the active roster on gameday due to the lack of depth at running back.
Establishing the run against the Falcons is no easy feat though. They rank 6th in the league in run defense, averaging just 100.3 yards allowed on the ground per game. The Panthers will need to have another dominant performance by the offensive line if they want to run the ball on this Atlanta defense. They will also need D'Onta Foreman to have another strong performance on the ground, which he is surely capable of.
Can the defense do their job?
If the Panthers want to get the win in this crucial division battle, the defense will need to do their job in stopping the Falcons' offense. This defense is coming off of a strong performance where they held the Buccaneers to only 3 points and stopped the Tom Brady led squad from scoring a single touchdown. The team also held Tampa Bay to only 46 rushing yards.
The defense will be a healthier unit this week. It looks like the cornerback trio of Jaycee Horn, Donte Jackson and CJ Henderson will all be playing in this game. All three of those players had been dealing with injuries. Now the secondary is the healthiest it has been in several weeks.
The Panthers will be facing an Atlanta offense that has over achieved considering the talent on that side of the ball. Arthur Smith has shown why he is one of the top offensive minds in the league with his rush-heavy offense that has performed valiantly. The Falcons offense is a run first one. They had 29 rushing attempts in last week's loss to the Bengals and only 13 pass attempts from quarterback Marcus Mariota. They will certainly be trying to establish the run on Sunday, like they have been doing every game, making it paramount that the Panthers' run defense is able to do their job.
The NFC South has quickly become the new NFC East. The team that wins this division may very well have a losing record. This has given the Panthers an opportunity to make a push for the playoffs despite only having a 2-5 record. Defeating the Falcons is a must if they want to take advantage of this opportunity and find themselves playing games in January for the first time in 5 years.
If there is one thing that we know about the Panthers, it is that they love to give their fans a brief feeling of hope, only to crush all of their dreams before their eyes the very next week. Cautious optimism is advised regarding this team's future. The Cardiac Cats have a lot that they need to prove if they want to be a playoff team. Sunday's game against the Falcons will be a very telling game. We will get a better understanding of whether this team has turned over a new leaf, or if last week's win against Tampa Bay was a fluke.