It's hard to believe that it's already Week 8.
The NFL regular season rolls on, and we've got quite an interesting matchup on this week's edition of Thursday Night Football. The Falcons are a team in transition, having fired their coach and general manager after a disastrous start to the year. The Panthers were in that position last season, and now look like they're moving in the right direction under new coach Matt Rhule.
It may be a year or two before either of these teams truly enters the playoff picture, but the process of getting from here to there necessarily includes division rivalry games like this. With that in mind, let's break down the matchup.
How to watch
When the Falcons have the ball
It feels appropriate to begin this section by talking about Carolina's defense. Last year, the Panthers finished 23rd in yards allowed, 31st in points allowed, and 26th in efficiency, per Football Outsiders' DVOA. They had the league's single worst unit against the run, allowing 5.2 yards per carry and 31 scores while ranking dead last in rush defense DVOA.
This year's team ranks 13th in both yards and points allowed per game, which seems like the sign of a unit that has taken a massive leap. However, efficiency measurements show that it has actually taken a slight step forward against the run (28th in DVOA), which has helped offset a slight step backward against the pass (from 12th to 17th), and slightly improved the team's overall performance (23rd in DVOA). Still, after finishing last season so poorly, then seeing Luke Kuechly retire and James Bradberry, Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, Mario Addison, Bruce Irvin, and more leave in free agency, it's pretty impressive. The Panthers are one of the youngest defenses in the league, yet also among the most improved. That's a good sign for the future of the team.
All that said, they face a stiff test on Thursday night. The Falcons may be just 1-6, but in every game where Julio Jones has been healthy, their offense has been explosive, and extremely tough to stop. Jones has played at least 79 percent of the snaps in four of Atlanta's games, during which the Falcons have averaged and 434 total yards and 31.5 points per contest. In the three games he has either been limited or sat out (including the first matchup between these two rivals), those numbers dipped to 357 yards and 19.3 points.
Jones being on the field presents a distinct challenge for the young Carolina secondary, which will now have to deal with both him and Calvin Ridley on the perimeter, as well as supplementary targets like Hayden Hurst, Russell Gage (injury permitting), and the running backs out fo the backfield. The Panthers are not particularly well equipped to deal with multiple high-level targets on the outside, what with Donte Jackson and rookie Troy Pride Jr. largely struggling in coverage. Corn Elder has been a bit more solid in the slot, but he's also barely even been targeted.
To slow down Jones, Ridley, and Matt Ryan, the Panthers will likely have to lean on their pass rush. But that's not a good situation to be in. While Brian Burns has been excellent (21 pressures so far), the Panthers as a whole have struggled to get to opposing passers. According to Pro Football Focus and Tru Media, Carolina has gotten pressure on only 26.7 percent of opponent dropbacks, far south of the league average of 34.1 percent. Perhaps we'll see them be more aggressive with the blitz than they've been so far this season, but considering their blitz rate is about half the league average on the year, that seems somewhat unlikely.
Instead, with his full complement of pass-catchers at his disposal and an offensive line unlikely to be overwhelmed by a subpar pass rush, Ryan should have the time and space to pick the Panthers secondary apart. Doing so will free up some more space for Todd Gurley, Brian Hill, and the run game. Derrick Brown and the rest of the guys up front have made this a better run-stopping group than it was last year, but it's still not a very good one. It'll get better in the future, but that doesn't help now.
When the Panthers have the ball
Much like the Panthers, the Falcons have not gotten much pressure on opposing quarterbacks. As a result, they have largely been lit up in the passing game. Opposing quarterbacks have 19 touchdown passes and just five interceptions, averaging a first down on 41.1 percent of their pass attempts (league average is 37.6 percent) and registering a 113.8 passer rating. Cornerbacks Isaiah Oliver, A.J. Terrell, and Kendall Sheffield have allowed a combined 79 of 103 passes thrown in their direction to be completed, for 1,141 yards, seven touchdowns, and just one interception. That's ... horrendous.
With the exception of one game against the Bears, the Carolina offense has been quite good -- even without Christian McCaffrey. Matt Rhule and Joe Brady have done an excellent job putting their players in position to succeed, from Teddy Bridgewater to Robby Anderson to Mike Davis. Davis has seen his efficiency fall off dramatically over the past couple weeks, but even with Davis struggling the Panthers still managed 24 points against the Saints last week.
Bridgewater, Anderson, and D.J. Moore, in particular, have been incredibly tough for opposing defenses to deal with. With the exception of that Bears game, Bridgewater has completed at least 65 percent of his passes in every game, recording a passer rating of 98 or better in five of those six contests.
Anderson has been used far different in Carolina than he was in New York, with the Panthers getting the ball into his hands quickly and allowing him to make hay after the catch rather than simply asking him to run wind sprints up and down the field. Moore has alternated between being a deep threat and doing after-catch work, and is averaging a career-best 10.7 yards per target. Given how poorly the Atlanta cornerback trio has played this season, it seems incredibly likely that the Panthers will find passing success again -- just as they did two weeks ago when Bridgewater went 27 of 36 for 313 yards and two scores, recording a 119.3 passer rating.
Another note from that game is that Davis caught nine of 10 passes thrown in his direction for 60 yards and a score. After a brief respite last year, the Falcons have gone back to allowing every running back to just demolish them in the passing game. The Falcons are allowing the sixth-most receiving yards per game to running backs, per Football Outsiders, a problem against either Davis or Christian McCaffrey, should he be somewhat surprisingly cleared to play in this contest. Davis' depressed rushing efficiency in recent weeks is far less of a problem against the Falcons for this specific reason.
Prediction: Panthers 30, Falcons 24