|Falcons wideout Roddy White is the team leader with 244 receiving yards. (AP Images)|
Panthers at Falcons – Week 4
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta (turf, indoors)
When: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
Spread: Falcons by 6
Records: Falcons (Overall: 3-0, NFC South: 0-0); Panthers (Overall: 1-2, NFC South: 1-1)
Past Results: Two most recent meetings: -- Dec. 11, 2011: Falcons 31, Panthers, 23; Oct. 16, 2011: Falcons 31, Panthers. Series record: Falcons lead 22-12.
What matters: The Falcons’ offense has been chugging along, averaging 31.3 points in three games, and their defense has the most takeaways (11) in the NFL. Their biggest concern against Carolina should be neutralizing Cam Newton and containing top receiver Steve Smith, who’s averaged 98.7 yards per game but doesn’t have a touchdown. The challenge this week for defense coordinator Mike Nolan will be to balance Atlanta’s aggressive, ball-hawking style and ensure his linebackers don’t over pursue and let Newton run free. The Falcons have allowed runs of 46 and 52 yards.
Who matters: Matt Ryan. The fifth-year player leads the NFL with a 114 quarterback passing rating and is the favorite on one way-too-early MVP list. He’s thrown eight touchdowns to one interception, completed a career-high 72 percent of his passes and has distributed the ball evenly. The Panthers are 18th in the league in pass defense, allowing 243 yards per game and have just two interceptions. Look for Ryan to get less conservative against Carolina and test their secondary. Ryan’s success is directly correlated to the Falcons’ offensive line, which after a shaky year in 2011, has kept Ryan’s jersey nearly spotless. He’s been sacked four times after going down 26 times last year.
Key matchups: Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas vs. Cam Newton. The Panthers' offense isn’t all that scary except for Newton, who’s the only player in NFL history with more than 20 passing touchdowns (23) and more than 15 rushing touchdowns (16) in his first 19 NFL games. The Falcons typically rush four, keep two linebackers back in pass coverage, and have five men in the secondary. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan might consider incorporating one more linebacker -- Akeem Dent -- into third-down sets to prevent Newton from extending drives with his feet. Weatherspoon and Nicholas (49 combined tackles, a forced fumble, an interception) can contain Newton on the edges but could use Dent in case he scrambles between the tackles.
Injuries of note: Falcons T Tyson Clabo (hip) wasn’t limited in practice Thursday and should be healthy Sunday. CB Christopher Owens, who missed last week’s win over San Diego, is questionable. He suffered a concussion against Denver two weeks ago but hasn’t been ruled out yet. Julio Jones (hand) was limited on Thursday but likely just as a precautionary measure.
Inside stuff: Falcons Ss William Moore and Thomas DeCoud have had fantastic starts. DeCoud’s three interceptions are tied for second in the NFL and the two have bolstered the league's eighth-best pass defense. The Panthers are 0-11 when Cam Newton throws an interception, so expect the opportunistic duo to be extremely aggressive on Sunday.
“As a young safety, they tried to trick you a lot. They expect you not to have seen a lot of stuff,” DeCoud said to Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “That’s paid dividends for William and I. Since we’ve seen a lot of stuff, we are less susceptible to being tricked and can make a lot more big plays.” Expect the Falcons’, who have thrived off of disguise coverages, to be tricking Newton on Sunday.
Connections: Falcons head coach Mike Smith, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and defensive line coach Ray Hamilton were on Jacksonville’s staff in 2007, with current Panthers quarterback coach Mike Shula.
Stat you should know: 5. The Panthers have five receivers who are averaging more than 10 yards per reception, led by Steve Smith, who’s averaging 21.1 yards on each of his 14 catches. Greg Olsen (6-foot-5, 255 pounds) has 14 receptions and is coming off of a seven-catch, 98-yard performance against the Giants.
Stat No. 2 you should know: Negative-6. The Panthers’ turnover margin is tied for 30th in the league, and Atlanta (plus-10), is the NFL’s best.
Looking ahead: The Falcons play at Washington next week, which is fortunate for coach Mike Smith, since Atlanta’s preparation for Cam Newton will be similar to how it defends Robert Griffin III.
Prediction: Falcons 31, Panthers 14
For more Falcons coverage, follow Mike Singer @CBSFalcons.