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Falcons-Panthers key matchups: What Atlanta has to do beat Carolina 

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Atlanta Falcons will begin a three-game home stretch Sunday with the Carolina Panthers up first, and they will need to be sharp to pick up their first win of the season against their division rival.

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There are a few key areas where Atlanta will need to succeed to achieve its goals and earn a victory against Carolina. One major key will be slowing down Cam Newton on the ground, which you can read more about in this week’s After Further Review.

Red-zone offense vs. Panthers’ red-zone defense

Plain and simple, the Falcons have to be better in the red zone than they were in Week 1. If Atlanta continues to score a touchdown on just 20 percent of its opportunities inside of the 20-yard line, the Falcons will not have much success this season. It’s going to take everyone involved to improve in that area, not just the coaches and not just the players.

“By no means was I satisfied with scoring,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “But sometimes the play selection was the right one, we didn’t nail it in terms of our execution of that. Other times it can be the opposite where the guy played well and covered it too, we had an example of that … It’s not all, either execution or the call.”

This week they will face a Panthers defense that ranked eighth last season inside of the red zone, allowing teams to score a touchdown on 47.7 percent of their opportunities. The Cowboys scored a touchdown on their lone red-zone trip against the Panthers in Week 1, and it’s that area of the field where the spotlight will shine brightest for the Falcons.

Falcons linebackers vs. Christian McCaffrey

The absence of Deion Jones and Keanu Neal in the Falcons defense will be tested right away in this game. Newton is obviously a matchup problem of his own, but Christian McCaffrey was a major part of the Panthers’ offense against the Cowboys. The second-year back carried the ball 10 times for 50 yards and caught six passes for 45 yards in Week 1, and it was clear the Panthers want him to be involved.

McCaffrey’s speed and agility will test the second level of the Falcons’ defense, and the linebackers will have to be sound in their tackling to make sure a 6-yard play doesn’t turn into a 26-yard play. Duke Riley is the player most people will be watching, but De’Vondre Campbell, Foye Oluokun and even the Falcons’ safeties will need to be sharp.

In his two games against the Falcons last year, McCaffrey touched the ball 35 times for 148 yards and a touchdown.

Falcons run game vs. Panthers front seven

After running the ball just 18 times against the Eagles, two of which were Matt Ryan scrambles, the Falcons will likely seek a more balanced approach against the Panthers. It won’t be easy, however, as the Panthers held Ezekiel Elliott to 69 yards on 15 carries last week, and they have a stout defensive line with All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly just behind them.

The Panthers’ defense was No. 3 against the run in 2017, holding opponents to under 90 yards per game on the ground. The Falcons’ offense relies on the run setting up the play-action pass, however, so it is imperative they force the Panthers to respect that part of their game. The Falcons averaged less than 3 yards per carry in their two games against the Panthers last year.

“When you play good fronts it’s hard to get the run game going but you can find ways to do it because eventually, those runs break,” Quinn said. “Sometimes the zero run goes for 10 and you have to keep digging and taking your shots at it. It’s a big part of what we do, our run game.”

Falcons starting running back Devonta Freeman has been held out of practice this week, and it remains to be seen whether he will be available for this game. If Freeman is unable to go, Tevin Coleman has proven himself capable of handling the bulk of the carries and Quinn expressed Thursday how highly the Falcons regard Coleman.

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