CHARLOTTE — The Carolina Panthers have surged above .500 for the first time since 2008 and aim for their fourth straight victory when they host the Atlanta Falcons today. The Panthers have won three straight by an average of 19.3 points to pull within two games of NFC South leader New Orleans, while the defending champion Falcons have struggled to their worst start since 2007.
Carolina’s offense has sprung to life the past three weeks, topping 30 points in each game, while Cam Newton has posted a league-best 130.3 passer rating over that span.
“He is playing outstanding football, especially in these last three games,” Falcons coach Mike Smith told reporters. “He is playing as good as any quarterback in the league right now.”
The Falcons have won five of the past six meetings, but Carolina won the most recent contest.
While the Falcons are 2-5, they have answered the bell in each game.
To their credit, they’ve come out swinging before getting knocked out.
After good starts they have not been able to sustain their initial efforts and will face a stiff test against the resurgent Panthers.
The Falcons have outscored the opposition 44-3 in the first quarter before things have started sliding downhill. They’ve been outscored 181-122 in the remaining three quarters.
“We’ve started fast,” Smith said. “That’s something that we always want to do. We’ve got to be better in the second, third and fourth quarter, obviously.”
The Panthers’ defense has only allowed three points in the first quarter this season as they’ve outscored the opposition 31-5.
“They are playing very good football on the defensive side of the football right now,” Smith said. “That front seven is outstanding. It’s going to be important for us to win that battle.
“We have to win the line of scrimmage. They have guys that can rush. They’ve got a true eight-man rotation up front with their defensive front and two of their three linebackers (Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis) are playing at a Pro Bowl level right not. It’s going to be a challenge for us.”
One of the Falcons’ main offseason projects was to come up with a better defensive plan for the read-option offense.
The defensive staff spent time with the college staffs at Clemson and Vanderbilt as part of that project.
One major problem is that the key players they’ve used in the past to spy on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton are injured. Defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann (out for the season Achilles tendon surgery) and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (foot) will both miss this game.
“It is an element of their offense,” Smith said. “You have to prepare for it and in your preparation you have to account for the quarterback as a runner in that scheme.”
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton rushed 18 times for 202 yards and a touchdown in the two meetings last season.
Running back DeAngelo Williams is the Panthers’ leading rusher with 477 yards on 114 carries and one touchdown. Newton has 50 rushes for 229 yards and three touchdowns. Mike Tolbert has 182 yards on 51 carries and three touchdowns.
“You have to be more disciplined against that style of offense than your typical running game, because everyone has a one-on-one (matchup),” Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. “You’re playing against 11. Usually when the quarterback hands the ball off, you’ve got 11 defensive guys playing 10.”
In addition to seeing Carolina, the Falcons play Seattle next and will see Washington’s Robert Griffin III and San Francisco’s pistol version later this season. Last season, the Falcons contained Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, Griffin and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, but allowed the tight ends to roam free in the secondary.
“You have to be very disciplined because if you have one guy running with the ball free, you can’t afford it,” Nolan said. “That’s really what you have to deal with, if you’re going to play it five snaps or 35 snaps.”
The Falcons cannot afford to have missed tackles against Newton and the Panthers.
“Tackling will be a huge thing in the game,” Nolan said. “Last year, we didn’t (tackle well).”