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PREVIEW: Falcons look to stay perfect vs. divisional foe Panthers

Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis (58) celebrates with teammate defensive end Antwan Applewhite after a big stop against the Buccaneers two weeks ago. Davis, the former Randolph-Clay and UGA star, has made another comeback this season from his third ACL tear — becoming the first player in pro football history to successfully do so. Davis has six solo tackles so far this year.

Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis (58) celebrates with teammate defensive end Antwan Applewhite after a big stop against the Buccaneers two weeks ago. Davis, the former Randolph-Clay and UGA star, has made another comeback this season from his third ACL tear — becoming the first player in pro football history to successfully do so. Davis has six solo tackles so far this year.

Want To Go or Watch?

WHO: Carolina Panthers (1-2) at Atlanta Falcons (3-0).

WHAT: Key NFC South showdown.

WHEN: 1 p.m. today.

WHERE: Atlanta.

TV: FOX.

LINE: Falcons by 7 points.

ATLANTA — Strong starts on offense have helped the Atlanta Falcons remain one of the NFL's three undefeated teams.

Poor starts on defense have left the Carolina Panthers in an early hole in the NFC South.

Each team is placing an emphasis on a successful opening series when the teams meet today.

Quarterback Matt Ryan's accurate passing is a big reason the Falcons (3-0) are the only NFL team to score touchdowns on opening possessions of the first three games.

The Panthers (1-2) have been equally consistent in their slow starts on defense. Carolina has allowed opposing teams to score on the first possession of all three games.

"We have to come out with better intensity and understand the situation and know that we need to go out and set the tone early and not try to wait until the second series," said Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, a former Randolph-Clay and Georgia star who returned this season from his third ACL surgery — the first professional football player in history to successfully do so. "We have to go out and jump on these guys and not try to do too much."

Fast starts have always been an emphasis for Falcons coach Mike Smith. Atlanta is 37-9 in five seasons under Smith when scoring first.

Ryan was viewed as a rising star in his first four seasons. Now he is being mentioned among the league's top passers as he has flourished in first-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's system.

The Falcons no longer are a run-first team. Ryan has emerged as the NFL leader in passer rating and completion percentage and he's tied with Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger for the league lead with eight touchdown passes.

Ryan said he's just having fun.

"I think obviously winning is what it's all about, and we've done a good job of that so far," Ryan said. "It's a fun game. It's fun to play. We've got great teammates, we have good camaraderie and it's a fun team to be a part of."

Receiver Roddy White says aggressive play-calling is keeping the Falcons out of third-down situations.

"Dirk always says that if you stay out of third downs, then you don't have to complete them," White said. "Just staying ahead of the chains. I think we're doing a good job of play-calling on first and second down, and Dirk's doing a heck of a job just being aggressive, getting us chunks down the field. I think every time we get chunks down the field and get some explosives on those drives, we're going down and scoring points."

The Panthers can't blame all their troubles on early defensive lapses. Second-year quarterback Cam Newton completed only 16 of 30 passes with three interceptions and no touchdowns in last week's 36-7 home loss to the Giants.

"It's a loss," Newton said this week. "I don't like losing and hopefully we can come back and I can do my part (today)."

Veteran receiver Steve Smith said he didn't like seeing Newton sulking on the bench at the end of the game. Smith's comments triggered questions during the week about the relationship between the two.

Smith is a five-time Pro Bowl selection who has assumed a big brother role in the development of Newton, who was The Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011.

Newton has five interceptions and two touchdown passes so far, but all the news isn't discouraging. Despite his poor numbers last week, Newton has completed 63.9 percent of his passes and has 81 yards rushing with a team-leading two touchdowns.

The Falcons, who have won their first three games for the first time since 2004, have feasted on the AFC West, beating Kansas City, Denver and San Diego. Atlanta beat the Chargers 27-3 in San Diego last week as Ryan completed 30 of 40 passes for 275 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.

Ryan has only one interception with his eight TD passes.

"Ryan is playing extremely well and making a lot of good decisions," said Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson. "He's not turning the ball over. We have to put a lot of pressure on him because he's just not turning the ball over."

Ryan gives credit to Atlanta's defense for setting up scoring chances.

The Falcons lead the NFL with 11 takeaways and 40 points off turnovers. Safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore have combined for five interceptions, three by DeCoud.

"They're playing like ball hawks in the secondary, coming away with a lot of picks and fumbles," Ryan said. "So that's certainly helped us out the first couple of weeks."

All the news hasn't been good for the Falcons, who have had prominent players arrested in each of the last two weeks.

Atlanta police said defensive end John Abraham was "obviously intoxicated" when he was arrested on two misdemeanor obstruction charges Monday night. Atlanta police say Abraham refused repeated requests from firefighters and police to move behind a taped-off area where a woman was threatening to jump out of a hotel window.

Abraham practiced this week.

Abraham's arrest came one week after running back Michael Turner's drunken driving arrest. Turner ran for 80 yards with a touchdown last week against the Chargers.


FALCONS' DEFENSE LIVING OFF TURNOVERS:

FLOWERY BRANCH — First-year defensive coordinator Mike Nolan keeps putting the Atlanta Falcons in position to make big plays.

The Falcons’ pass rush and coverage schemes have created 11 takeaways, tops in the NFL through the first three games.

With 14 years of experience in the league as a coordinator and four as a head coach, Nolan wants his defense to stay in attack mode until he tells the players to let up.

“You want them to have an attacking mindset whether if you are blitzing or not,” Nolan said. “Even going after the ball is more of an offensive type of attitude rather than just tackling the ball carrier.”

The approach has the Falcons scoring a league-best 40 points off their seven interceptions and four fumble recoveries.

Over the last two weeks, Atlanta held Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers to a combined 51.9 passer rating — an impressive number against a pair of the league’s most prolific quarterbacks.

Manning was picked off on each of Denver’s first three possessions as Nolan disguised coverages and had safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore float in spaces the four-time NFL MVP didn’t expect based on the presnap look the Falcons had shown.

“It’s basically one those systems that allows players to relax, and it’s a defense built around your players’ strengths,” Moore said. “He plays to the strengths of individuals and what can we do best as individuals.”

Last week at San Diego, the game turned in Atlanta’s favor late in the second quarter when linebacker Sean Weatherspoon forced Ryan Mathews to fumble and DeCoud recovered at the Falcons 4-yard line.

The Atlanta offense followed with the perfect complement, a 17-play, 96-yard touchdown drive that gave the Falcons a 20-0 halftime lead.

“We’re just trying to run to the football,” Weatherspoon said. “Whenever the ball’s out, guys are trying to get on it. Whenever the ball’s in the air, you’ve got guys trying to take it away. We’re doing a great job of that. We’ve just got to keep it up.”

At home against Carolina (1-2) on Sunday, Atlanta (3-0) will face an offense that has eight giveaways, third most in the league.

Second-year Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, with six interceptions, might not look like the same player who was the 2011 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, but DeCoud insists the Falcons won’t look at his recent struggles and play less aggressively.

“In this league, you can be humbled really fast,” DeCoud said. “You’ve got to stay on top of your game and make sure you do the things each week to keep getting better.”

DeCoud spent much of his offseason working on ball awareness and pursuit. It sounds simple, like the work of any defensive back, to “fly to the ball when it’s in the air and make a play on the ball when it’s in the air.”

But Nolan impressed upon DeCoud and Moore the value of never giving up on a play, an approach that’s helped them combine for five interceptions and one fumble recovery that led to 27 Atlanta points.

Linebacker Stephen Nicholas was a beneficiary, too, with an interception and a fumble recovery at Kansas City.

“I’ve worked on awareness for a lot of years,” Nolan said, “the exact way that we are doing it.”