As the Falcons (5-9) look to sweep the Carolina Panthers (6-8) in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, here are three key matchups to watch:
1. Falcons’ linebacker Deion Jones vs. Panthers’ running back Christian McCaffrey
Two of the league’s youngest stars will matchup with one another for the first time this year. McCaffrey created several problems for Atlanta’s defense in the first meeting back in Week 2 when he rushed for 37 yards and had 14 catches for 102 yards. One of Jones’ specialties is his ability to cover running backs and without him on the field (due to an injury), McCaffrey and the Panthers took full advantage. Expect this to change with Jones back on the field. Despite being placed on IR and returning to game-action on Dec. 2, Jones looks like hasn’t missed a beat. In two of the Falcons’ last three games, Jones has been the leading tackler. McCaffrey has 1,747 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns on the year.
2. Atlanta’s offensive line vs. Carolina’s defensive line
This game is going to be won in the trenches. Every time these clubs square off against one another it’s a battle. Carolina’s defense is predicated off the pressure their front-four brings with defensive tackle Kawann Short and defensive end Mario Addison leading the way. They’re also tough to run the ball against as they have the No. 11 ranked rushing defense. The pressure Carolina’s defense brings up front only helps their trio of talented linebackers: Luke Kuechly, Shaq Thompson and Thomas Davis. The Falcons need to keep Matt Ryan’s pocket clean as the best part of Atlanta’s offense this season has been their aerial attack. They’ll also look to have another strong rushing performance after a season-high 215 yards against the Cardinals. The Falcons will be without rookie running back Ito Smith as he was placed on IR earlier this week. Tevin Coleman will carry the load with Brian Hill as his backup.
3. Falcons’ defensive line vs. Carolina quarterback Taylor Heinicke
The Falcons will be seeing a new face under center for the Panthers and that’s quarterback Taylor Heinicke. Cam Newton will be inactive as he’s dealing with a shoulder injury. Atlanta’s defensive players will have to adjust to a quarterback they haven’t seen much film of. Heinicke has played in five games this season, completing two passes for 46 yards. Atlanta’s defensive line has an opportunity to build off their dominant performance last weekend with seven sacks.