Falcons defense can begin to build culture against Panthers

The challenges facing the Atlanta Falcons defense this week when they square off against the Carolina Panthers are considerably less than they saw in last week’s beatdown at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals. However, the Panthers offense will challenge the Falcons in areas where they’ve had previous struggles. Their ability to show progress will tell us not only about the effectiveness of their defensive coaching staff, but also give them an opportunity to start building a positive defensive culture.

One of those troublesome areas is defending screens, where the Falcons were gashed by the San Francisco 49ers in Week 6. Per Pro Football Focus, 49ers’ quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo completed all seven of his attempted screen passes in that game for 48 yards and a touchdown . That gave him the highest passer rating (134.8) on screens in that week.

The Falcons aren’t alone in their struggles to handle the 49ers’ screen game, as that Week 6 matchup marked the fifth consecutive week in which Garoppolo sported a passer rating above 100 on screen passes.

But in general, the Falcons have not been great defending shorter throws. Football Outsiders ranks them 29th in defensive DVOA on passes under 15 yards, and they also rank 31st in terms of yards given up on such throws.

Of course, Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees will be quick to point out that the only stat he cares about is points allowed. Conceding underneath throws jives with his “bend but don’t break” defensive philosophy as long as the team is keeping points off the scoreboard. Notably, the Falcons have been very effective implementing that doctrine for the past five games. Since Week 2, their defensive red-zone efficiency of 47.4 percent is 10th best in the NFL.

Big plays were back-breaking to Falcons defense last week

However, those principles were put to the test last week against the Bengals, as the Falcons defense did a lot of breaking by giving up ten explosive plays of 20 yards or more. To Pees, conceding chunk plays is unacceptable, especially when three of them resulted in scores.

Atlanta’s next opponent in the Panthers had more than their fair share of explosive plays last week in their surprising 21-3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Panthers had seven plays of 20 or more yards in that game, which was remarkable for two reasons .

The first is that very few teams ever have that much success carving up the Todd Bowles-led Bucs defense. Since Bowles took over defensive play-calling in 2019, only two teams have had seven or more explosive plays against his squad: the Patrick Mahomes -led Kansas City Chiefs in 2020 and the Josh Allen-led Buffalo Bills in 2021. That certainly puts Panthers starter PJ Walker in rare company.

The second reason is that it was such a departure from what the Panthers had done in previous performances. Entering Week 7, the Panthers only had 15 explosive plays, which was tied for the second-fewest in the league.

Therefore, we must conclude either that Walker’s recent ascendancy as starting quarterback is either about to usher in a new era of a high-flying Panthers passing attack, or that last Sunday’s performance was an outlier.

For the time being, I will lean towards the latter conclusion, especially since the Panthers were extremely reluctant to push the ball down the field during Walker’s first start of the season against the Los Angeles Rams just a week prior. Their game plan centered almost exclusively around screen passes, with Walker only attempting a single pass that traveled more than nine yards in the air and failing to complete any that traveled more than two yards.

Expect a heavy dosage of screens from Panthers

In fact, in his two combined starts, the Panthers have dialed up more screens than any other offense in the leaguem according to Pro Football Focus. They have run 17 screens over the past two games, accounting for roughly 40 percent of Walker’s dropbacks. Even last week, with Walker being “unleashed,” they still attempted screens on 25 percent of his throws, which is a high frequency by NFL standards.

Therefore, Carolina’s offense presents an unorthodox mix of challenges for Atlanta’s defense. Given last week’s results for both teams, the Panthers will likely attempt to gas the Falcons for big gains, while also mixing in a large number of screens. If the past two weeks ‘ results tell us anything, the Falcons defense is vulnerable to both.

There is of course reason to be optimistic that the Falcons will rebound when it comes to reducing the amount of explosive plays this week. The Panthers don’t sport the caliber of receivers that the Bengals do. Also, the Falcons did show improvement against the 49ers’ screens in the second half after making in-game adjustments. Garoppolo completed just two screens after halftime for only four yards.

It won’t be difficult for Pees to instill the importance of those hard-learned lessons from recent games. If he’s successful at doing so and the Falcons are able to slow down both the Panthers’ screen game and explosive plays, it will be a great sign of progress for this defense.

As the Falcons coaching staff acknowledges, the defense may never dazzle anybody on the stat sheet or box score. Where they can impress is by being recognized as well-coached and disciplined. This week, that will manifest if they can improve on weaknesses and correct issues that have plagued them in recent outings.

Should they succeed, it will increase confidence that with further development and an infusion of added talent, the reputation of this defense will become a lot more fearsome. That notoriety and positive culture change could start against the Panthers.

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Jorge Oliveira

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