Panthers eye bounceback against Falcons

Panthers start conference play against the lone team that beat them in the 2015 regular season.

Bob Donnan—X02835
Sep 25

Through three games, the Panthers have already lost as many games as the entire 2015 season. After getting manhandled by the Vikings in Week 3, Carolina is 1-2 with an offense that has struggled to crack some of the best defenses in the NFL.So is it time to freak out? Not quite yet.Despite the rough start, the Panthers still haven’t played an NFC South opponent and reside in a division where only one team has a winning record. That team on the right side of .500, the Atlanta Falcons, also happens to be the Panthers’ Week 4 opponent. Atlanta is coming off a waxing of New Orleans on Monday night in the Superdome.Ironically enough, the only team to take down the Panthers during the 2015 regular season were the Falcons, who beat Carolina in the Georgia Dome late in the season. With the two teams clashing again in Atlanta, here’s a breakdown of five things to watch for Panthers fans.Limiting the NFL’s top offenseAtlanta’s weapons are never ending. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are a two-headed monster in the rushing attack. Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Jacob Tamme all have more than 130 receiving yards and a touchdown on the season.So is that a product of playing mediocre defenses like the Buccaneers and Saints, or is Atlanta the real deal? We’ll find out on Sunday when the Panthers come to town.”You play the teams on your schedule and you don’t worry about that kind of stuff,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “You go out there and play as hard as you can week in and week out and you try to score as many points as you can on the offensive side of the ball.”Despite losing two games through three weeks, the Panthers defense hasn’t been the issue. Carolina currently ranks No. 3 in the NFL in yards per game (273.3), but ranks 18th with 23.3 points per game. In order to come away with a .500 record, the defense will need to limit huge plays and red zone appearances by the Falcons’ high-flying offense.Bounce back CatsSince a loss to the Vikings on Nov. 30, 2014, the Panthers have lost just two regular season games. That was also the last time Carolina lost two straight games, with a win following every loss since that point.After a tough loss to the Broncos to start the season, the Panthers regrouped to trounce the 49ers. Following their first loss at the hands of the Falcons in Week 16 last year, the Buccaneers were the unlucky recipient of a 38-10 beatdown by the Panthers.This time around might be a little tougher, however. That aforementioned offense leads the league in points scored (34.7) and total yards (448.0) through three games and has two straight road wins before returning home.Carolina’s offense has rarely shown its full potential through three weeks. Expect Cam Newton to run wild against a weak defense in a game that should be a fight for 40 in the Georgia Dome.ABP on BenjaminIn the 22-10 loss to the Vikings, Kelvin Benjamin saw just one target and came away with zero receptions. Since his rookie season, Benjamin had at least one reception in every game with the Panthers.Benjamin’s last game without at least one catch? His freshman season with Florida State on Sept. 29, 2012 against South Florida. Yeah, it’s been a long time.Don’t expect a similar performance this Sunday. Cam won’t have it.”That can’t happen,” Newton said of targeting Benjamin just once. “If I’m speaking for it, that won’t happen again. He’s too good of a player.”The Falcons defense is porous, allowing 313 passing yards and 30.3 points per game. Prior to playing Minnesota, Benjamin was averaging 99.5 yards per game with three touchdowns. Look for the tall receiver to get right on Sunday.Wither the bellcow?Facing one of the staunchest defenses in the NFL in Week 3, Cameron Artis-Payne was only given 13 total touches against the Vikes. He turned those into 58 total yards and two first downs as the Panthers lead back.With Jonathan Stewart expected to be out yet again with a hamstring injury, this week’s opponent might be a little more kind for CAP.The second-year back is the likely starter against the Falcons, a team he played well against in 2015. While he didn’t touch paydirt in Atlanta last year, he did average 9.8 yards per carry and 49 yards total. Albeit, that was helped by a 31-yard scamper in that game, the longest of his career.He’ll still share the backfield with Fozzy Whittaker and Mike Tolbert, but this might be CAP’s last chance to prove he deserves some kind of a timeshare when Stewart returns. Against a horrendous defense that allows 120 rushing yards per game, look for Artis-Payne to make a big impact.Julio vs. Bradberry, Part 1Here’s some breaking news for you: Julio Jones is a really good receiver. Since entering the league, the Falcons’ No. 1 receiver has torched opposing secondaries when he’s healthy.That doesn’t bode well for James Bradberry. But then again, he’s passed every test thus far.In his first three games, Bradberry has been Carolina’s preeminent corner, facing the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Stefon Diggs. Against Bradberry, Thomas came away with 48 yards and Diggs posted 40. Outside of facing the Panthers corner, Thomas is averaging 95 yards with a touchdown while Diggs is averaging 142.5 yards with a score.We already spoke about Jones’ averages this season outside of his awful game against the Saints. In his last five meetings with the Panthers, Jones totaled 31 catches and 449 yards and two touchdowns.While there will be plenty of focus on the Panthers’ front seven against the Falcons’ two-headed monster in the backfield, Jones vs. Bradberry could decide Sunday’s outcome.