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Five things to watch as the Falcons host the Carolina Panthers

The Falcons will field a healthy team on Sunday: A.J. Terrell cleared, Kaleb McGary returns

Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell #24 during team practice at Atlanta Falcons Headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on Friday October 27, 2021. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Atlanta Falcons)
Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell #24 during team practice at Atlanta Falcons Headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on Friday October 27, 2021. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Atlanta Falcons)

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- In football, timing is everything. The same could be said about sports... or life in general... but I'm getting off topic. The Falcons face the Panthers at home on Sunday, and it's a game that comes at an opportune time for Atlanta, a team that sits at 3-3 on the season. The Falcons have won three of their last four games, and they're looking to extend a win streak to three games with a victory over Carolina on Sunday.

This is a crucial two-week slate for the Falcons, who will host Carolina this weekend and travel to New Orleans the next. If the Falcons can put up a big day against the Panthers on Sunday, it dramatically shifts the narrative around the team heading to face the Saints for the first time this year.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, the Falcons have to get through this Sunday first before we even begin breaking down the Saints game. So, without further ado, let's take a look at five key storylines heading into Sunday's divisional contest.


1. Eyes on a healthy secondary

There were a few injury questions the Falcons had after the win in Miami, particularly in the secondary. A.J. Terrell (concussion) and Erik Harris (shoulder) were banged up during the game, as was Fabian Moreau. The Falcons were already without Avery Williams (hamstring) as they had been since before the London game. The good news, though, is that all four returned to full practice status this week, even Williams who said on Thursday he's ready to get back out on the field.

As of now the Falcons will continue to play a steady rotation of Harris, Duron Harmon and Jaylinn Hawkins at safety. Terrell and Moreau will still hold down their starting roles. But there could be a heavier rotation at nickel with Williams back in the fold. Williams went in for Isaiah Oliver when he was injured against Washington. But in Williams absence, fellow rookies Richie Grant, Darren Hall and practice squad call-up Chris Williamson shared some of that responsibility inside, with Grant playing a more prominent role. Where Williams fits into this rotation - if he fits at all - will be something to watch.

One more note on the secondary comes from Dean Pees who said he wants to see the secondary improve in man coverage. Pees added he would like for the defense to do a better job getting off the field on third down, too, but he said he's like to see this secondary play better in man first and foremost. Those two notions will be something to keep in mind on Sunday, too.

2. Kaleb McGary's return to the starting lineup

Following the Falcons bye week, McGary was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. He had to miss the Falcons game against the Dolphins because of it. In his place, the Falcons started Jason Spriggs at right tackle, who played fairly well in the interim. Arthur Smith praised Spriggs' contribution after the game, saying his performance was what the Falcons needed from him in McGary's absence.

McGary was activated early this week and has been practicing with the starting offensive line again. The expectation is that the Falcons offensive line returns to its normal grouping.

Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle Kaleb McGary #76 during team practice at Atlanta Falcons Headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on Friday October 27, 2021. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Atlanta Falcons)

3. Getting Calvin Ridley going

Fantasy football has loved to see Kyle Pitts' numbers throughout the last two games for the Falcons. Over 100 receiving yards in both games has been quite promising to see from the rookie tight end. What Fantasy may not like as much is Ridley's numbers. Though Ridley had an important and acrobatic touchdown catch against the Dolphins, he finished the day with four catches on 10 targets and 26 yards. That's the least amount of receiving yards for Ridley in a single game since Week 4 of last year when he didn't register a catch against Green Bay.

When asked about getting Ridley going against Carolina, offensive coordinator Dave Ragone said it's less about an individual's performance and more about how the entire offense is running as a whole. Sure, they'd like to see Ridley's numbers go up, but they also like how many different players Matt Ryan is using in the pass game right now. Fantasy team owners probably don't like that answer very much, but we all know receptions come in flurries, and Ridley is due.

4. The way Grady Jarrett affects the game

The Falcons are looking to generate more pass rush with Dante Fowler on IR for at least two more games. A topic of conversation for coaches this week was about what Jarrett does in pass rush. Both Smith and Pees pointed out that just because Jarrett hasn't been stuffing the stat sheet recently, doesn't mean he's not affecting the game. Smith and Pees both agreed he is, and he's doing things for this defense that won't show up in a stat book.

So, as the Panthers roll into town with a weird quarterback situation on their hands, look to Jarrett to capitalize on the uncertainty. It may not mean sacks, but Jarrett affects a quarterback. All of his tape proves it.

You can read more about the story the statistics do and do not tell about Jarrett (and Terrell, too) here.

5. You can (and should) watch the Falcons... and the Braves

This is a big game for the Falcons. As I previously mentioned at the top, one could argue it's the perfect time to face the Panthers just because of where both teams find themselves at this point in the season. The Falcons enter into this game looking to get above .500 for the first time in a while. And they have the chance to do it against a divisional opponent that's in a weird spot after losing to the Giants 25-3 last weekend. This is a really good opportunity for a relatively healthy Falcons team to make a stand at home.

As for the Braves, well, you surely know they're in the World Series. The Falcons face the Panthers at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Game 5 of the World Series starts at 8:15 p.m. That gives you plenty of time to go grab dinner after the Falcons game and be back to your couch, or sports bar or even the Battery when that first pitch arrives.

It probably goes without saying but... Go Braves.


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