After playing their best game of the season and shocking the NFL world with their 26-9 victory in New Orleans, the Falcons are carrying that momentum into Charlotte for a matchup with the Carolina Panthers.
Ron Rivera has been the head coach of the Panthers since 2011, and he knows as well as anyone the type of impact a victory like the Falcons just had can have on a team.
“Oh yeah, it doesn’t matter who you beat,” Rivera said. “Winning is winning. If you go out there and you win, you want to repeat it. The thing that you’ve got to do is you just have to take the momentum and go. That’s the thing about it.”
The Falcons (2-7) have had plenty of success against the Panthers (5-4) in recent years, winning six of their last seven meetings, including a 24-10 victory in Charlotte last year. In that win, running back Brian Hill had a breakout game.
Hill, who will likely be the Falcons’ starting running back on Sunday, carried the ball eight times for 115 yards against the Panthers in Week 16. Following Devonta Freeman’s foot injury against the Saints, Hill shouldered the load for the Falcons and ran the ball 20 times for 61 yards; he also had a 10-yard touchdown catch.
“I think he’s a versatile running back,” Rivera said. “It shows that he can run the ball. He’s got good vision and can make the cuts. He sticks his foot in the ground and goes downhill. You are not going to arm tackle him. You’ve got to hit, wrap and drive. I think this is guy who has the potential to be a good football player for them and do things that they need.”
The Panthers have had difficulties defending the run this season. Carolina is currently ranked 29th in rushing yards per game, giving up an average of 136.7 yards, and they are last in the league with an average of 5.17 rushing yards per play.
In their win against New Orleans, Atlanta made a concerted effort to establish its run game early and stick with the run throughout the game. That resulted in the Falcons running the ball 34 times for 143 yards, both of which are season highs. Given the way Carolina has fared against the run so far this season, there might be some opportunities to break off a big gain.
“The biggest thing is that we have to stop giving up an explosive run or two,” Rivera said. “That’s probably the biggest thing that has gotten us. You give up a 20- or 30-yard run, or two of them, your stats get out of whack. We’ve probably given up more explosive runs than we need to. That’s the thing we have to shore up.”
One thing the Panthers haven’t had trouble doing is getting after the quarterback. Carolina currently leads the league with 36 sacks, and the Panthers have eight players on their defense with at least three sacks this season, led by defensive end Mario Addison who has seven.
The Falcons have struggled to protect Matt Ryan at times this season, but they have allowed just three sacks in their last two games. When given time, Ryan has been especially effective against the Panthers. In 22 career games against Carolina, Ryan has completed 66 percent of his passes for 5,996 yards, 36 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and holds a 96 quarterback rating.
“He’s a good quarterback,” Rivera said. “He’s a guy that’s given us trouble, given us fits. At the end of the day, the thing that you’ve got to do is be discipline against him. He’s going to go hard play-action, and he does a good job with play-action. He’ll throw the ball downfield. He has got a good arm. He still makes good decisions. He’s got a good touch. He makes all of the throws. He’s a guy that you’ve got to be disciplined against.”