8:20 PM EST, FOX/NFL Network – Line: Panthers -2.5, Over/Under: 50.5
A pair of division rivals heading in very different directions meet tonight, as the Atlanta Falcons look to once again turn things around following a miserable start at the Carolina Panthers from Bank of America Field in Charlotte, North Carolina. For the second consecutive season the Falcons (1-6, 4th in NFC South) find themselves circling the drain in the NFC, proving unable to build precious momentum in the early stages of the campaign. Last season, they started off a dreadful 1-7 before they managed to turn things around following their Bye Week, winning six of their final eight outings en route to a respectable 7-9 finish. However, in that particular case, the team’s Owner, Arthur Blank, showed the patience and restraint to allow the Coaching Staff, headed by Dan Quinn, the opportunity to right the proverbial ship. Fast forward twelve months, and that same luxury was not afforded to the venerable Head Coach, who was promptly fired along with General Manager, Thomas Dimitroff, following Atlanta’s 23-16 defeat to the Panthers three weeks ago. While the decision was not unexpected by any means, it was awfully telling that Blank parted ways with both Quinn and Dimitroff, with the ousting of the latter signaling a full-scale rebuild may very well be waiting in the wings. Of course, this is a franchise that has certainly struggled since infamously relinquishing a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI, mustering a mediocre 25-30 record (.454) since that fateful evening, having missed the Playoffs in consecutive seasons and well on their way to a third. In the meantime, longtime Assistant, Raheem Morris, has taken over as the Interim Head Coach for the rest of 2020.
So just how in the hell have the Falcons regressed into this broken shell of a team, you ask? While it would certainly be easy to question their mental toughness since that inexplicable collapse in Super Bowl LI, that’s precisely where we’re going to begin, particularly when you consider how they’ve blown a plethora of late leads this season in arriving to this point. Three of their seven defeats have come when leading in the Fourth Quarter, two of which were by double-digits. Back in Week Two at Dallas (40-39), they led 39-24 midway through the final stanza, only to fall victim to a late Cowboys rally enabled by arguably the worst onside kick coverage in the history of the sport. The following week they held a commanding 26-10 advantage over the Bears (30-26) with just over six minutes left to play, only for their opponent to switch Quarterbacks and proceed to run off twenty-one unanswered points in roughly half a period. And then their latest gaffe came over the weekend in a 23-22 loss to the Lions, in which they took a 22-16 lead with a mere 1:12 left on the clock. This one was really unfortunate, folks, for Atlanta had every intention of killing the affair off, as Tailback, Todd Gurley (122 CAR, 485 YDS, 4.0 Y/A, 7 TD), attempted to stop one yard short of the Goal Line so that his team cold run more time off the clock before punching in the go-ahead score. However, his momentum would carry him into the End Zone, affording Detroit the opportunity to strike back, which they did, driving seventy-five yards downfield in eight plays to win the game. Eventually, losing in such a manner begins to become ingrained in your mind, and it’s our guess that it will take the next Coaching Staff many months of work in the Offseason to repair their collective psyche. This is where the aforementioned Quinn really paid the price, for even with his stellar defensive pedigree his charges were rarely ever any better than average on that side of the football, which is an indictment on the Coach, plain and simple. Of course, he was hired on the strength of his time in Seattle, where he coordinated the Seahawks’ vaunted Legion of Boom from 2013 to 2014, in which they ranked atop the league in a slew of defensive categories. With that said, in his five years in charge (the last year and some change calling plays defensively), the Falcons ranked no better than fourteenth in points allowed on one occasion, finishing above sixteenth in total yards yielded just once, and this season have checked in at twenty-sixth (29.6) and thirty-first (425.8) overall in those categories respectively. Now, in his defense nobody will ever confuse the talent at his disposal with what he had in the Pacific Northwest, and for that reason Dimitroff shared his fate.
The other major issue afflicting them that one must consider is the construction of their roster, which has proven to be undeniably top-heavy and unbalanced, suffering from a significant lack of depth. This is where Dimitroff is culpable, for the Falcons have plummeted into a mess under his watch. The Offense remains as well-stocked as ever with Pro Bowlers such as Quarterback, Matt Ryan (66.4%, 2,181 YDS, 6.87 NY/A, 12 TD, 3 INT, 72.7 QBR), Receiver, Julio Jones (31 REC, 447 YDS, 14.4 Y/R, 2 TD), and the aforementioned Gurley headlining a unit that features an NFL-record ELEVEN First Round Picks. However, the Defense has been far less fortunate, with the former Executive failing time and time again to replenish it’s ranks through a variety of methods, including via trade, Free Agency, or most importantly, the NFL Draft. Of course, Dimitroff predated Quinn, joining the club back in 2008, and in his time running the show his track record in terms of building the Defense has been mediocre at best, with seven defenders selected in the First Round, with only two Pro Bowls between them. Edge-Rusher, Vic Beasley Jr., was a bust, while Cornerback, Desmond Trufant, left last Offseason in Free Agency, while hard-hitting Safety, Keanu Neal (33 TKL, 5 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK), has missed TWENTY-NINE games over the past three seasons with a variety of injuries. Furthermore, third-year Cornerback, Isaiah Oliver (38 TKL, 2 TFL, 5 PD), simply can’t run with NFL Receivers, which is a weakness that’s only been exploited with a Secondary ravaged by injury. Even the unit’s marquee acquisition, Dante Fowler (15 TKL, 3 TFL, 5 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 PD), has struggled to make an impact; the Edge-Rusher arrived in Atlanta following a career-high 11.5 sacks in 2019, but has managed only ONE through seven games thus far. Simply put, the Defense lacks both talent and depth, with the situation becoming so dire that the Offense just can’t make up for their deficiencies any longer.
Meanwhile, as their opponent looks to be completing a developmental cycle, the Panthers (3-4, 3rd in NFC South) are only beginning theirs, as they continue to open this brand new era of football in Charlotte, North Carolina. This past Offseason saw sweeping change throughout the franchise, as their Owner, David Tepper, brought the successful Ron Rivera/Cam Newton era to an end, with the former fired midseason following a disappointing 5-7 start, while the latter was outright released in the Spring following a series of injury-ravaged campaigns. All in all, it was the right the move for Tepper, who purchased the club back in 2018 only to see them fall further and further back to mediocrity; though we don’t necessarily view Carolina in the same light as Atlanta, the two have had plenty in common over the past few years, for since falling short in Super Bowl L, this is a team that had managed a dismal 29-35 record (.453) from 2016 to 2019, with just one Playoff appearance to show for it. In parting ways with Rivera during the season, they were able to proactively find his replacement, which eventually became Matt Rhule, who returned to the NFL after a largely successful spell in the college ranks, rebuilding the likes of Temple and most notably, Baylor.
Despite being a hot commodity in coaching circles, there were still plenty of questions in regards to Rhule joining the Panthers, particularly given the circumstances caused by COVID-19. Granted, Carolina hired him before the pandemic really exploded, but the challenges for a Head Coach ascending to the professional ranks is difficult enough without the effects on the sport due to the virus; the 45-year old was gifted precious little time to put his Coaching Staff together and get them acclimated to their charges, with the Offseason truncated and the Preseason eliminated altogether. It’s not as if Rhule was going to lean on any preexisting NFL Coaches on his Staff, with his primary Assistants being Offensive Coordinator, Joe Brady, who arrived from LSU, and Defensive Coordinator, Phil Snow, who served under him in that same capacity in Waco, Texas. Furthermore, the Panthers had to face the task of replacing Newton, who had been their Starting Quarterback since he was drafted No. One Overall back in 2011. Despite owning the Seventh Overall Pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Rhule decided to bring in a veteran instead, adding Free Agent, Teddy Bridgewater. Of course, Bridgewater has endured quite the career thus far, having been selected 32nd Overall by the Minnesota Vikings in the 2014 NFL Draft, where he started for two seasons before a catastrophic knee injury would send his career spiraling into uncertainty. After spending over two years rehabbing, the signal-caller would sign with the New York Jets in Free Agency as a Backup, only to be shipped to the New Orleans Saints at the Trade Deadline where he would provide insurance for Drew Brees. This proved vital to the Saints in 2019, as Bridgewater would make five consecutive starts in place of the injured All-Pro, winning all five reminding the league what he could do now that he was healthy. With his contract set to expire in the Spring and a major contract offer unlikely to arrive in Free Agency, the 28-year old decided to stay within the NFC South and bet on himself once more, choosing the Panthers largely on the strength of his familiarity with the aforementioned Brady, whom he worked with in New Orleans in 2018. So now with his fourth franchise in as many years, how has Bridgewater performed, you ask? Quite frankly, he’s never looked better, posting career-bests in a slew of categories including completion percentage (72.2%), yards per game (275.7), net yards per attempt (7.47), sack percentage (5.3%), and QBR (71.0). Even without All-Pro Tailback, Christian McCaffrey (41 CAR, 156 YDS, 3.8 Y/A, 4 TD), who has missed the past five games with a high ankle sprain, the Offense remained steady if unspectacular, and that’s due to their Quarterback; Carolina has averaged 381.1 total yards (16th Overall), including 275.7 yards through the air (11th Overall) on a healthy 7.5 net yards per attempt (6th Overall), all the while converting a successful 46.9% of their third downs (8th Overall), and committing the just eight turnovers (9th Overall). They have however struggled mightily within the Red Zone, where they’ve scored a touchdown on just 52.0% of their attempts (28th Overall), a glaring weakness that figures to improve once McCaffrey returns to full health. And speaking of the versatile 24-year old, McCaffrey returned to practice earlier this week, with his status for tonight’s game officially listed as Questionable.
When we last saw the Panthers, fell to their second consecutive defeat, this time 27-24 at the New Orleans Saints. Though they’ve managed to hold their own offensively in the early goings of the campaign, they’ve struggled to keep up with the more high-powered units in the league, which was the case over the weekend. Rhule’s charges fell behind 14-3 early in the Second Quarter, but would answer back in short order with Bridgewater connecting with Receiver, D.J. Moore (31 REC, 567 YDS, 18.3 Y/R, 3 TD), on two occasions, the first being a 74-yard strike and the latter concluding a 9-play drive following a recovered fumble of his former teammate, Brees. However, the hosts would retake the lead to head into Halftime with a 21-17 advantage, setting up a second half in which the visiting side simply couldn’t move produce enough to threaten the Saints, despite limiting them to just a pair of field goals over the final thirty minutes of action. In the end, the difference in the affair was the run game, or the lack thereof for Carolina, who mustered a scant thirty-seven yards on fourteen carries in comparison to the 138 yards on twenty-nine attempts of their opponent, with the home side possessing the football for a commanding 34:41. And this is where the Panthers proved that they are still very much a work in progress, for their Defense couldn’t get off the field on Sunday, permitting the Saints a 12-of-14 success rate on third down, affording them the luxury of dictating tempo of play. Bridgewater was a solid 23-of-28 passing for 254 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Moore added ninety-three yards and those two scores on four catches, with fellow Wideout, Robby Anderson (46 REC, 640 YDS, 13.9 Y/R, 1 TD), hauling in six receptions of his own for seventy-four yards.