The news that longtime Panthers coach Ron Rivera had been fired with four games remaining in the 2019 season shook the NFL this week, and the Falcons will be the first team to face Carolina with interim coach Perry Fewell in charge.
Despite the shakeup in the coaching structure of the team, Fewell is adamant that his staff and team remain focused on the primary objective ahead.
"We are a very professional staff," Fewell said. "As the news trickled down to us, we were in the planning stages. We had been planning for a day and almost a day and a half. So, we continued to plan and prep our football team because we want to give our young men the opportunity to win a football game. As a professional staff, we continued to do the things we needed to do to play on Sunday."
Fewell will try to lead the Panthers (5-7) to their first win in Atlanta since the final game of the 2014 season, which Carolina won 34-3 in Mike Smith's last game as the Falcons' head coach. Atlanta (3-9) has won its last four meetings against Carolina, including a 29-3 victory in Week 11.
The Panthers turned the ball over four times in the first meeting between these two teams, including three times deep in Falcons territory. Atlanta also sacked Carolina quarterback Kyle Allen five times in the win, looking like the defense fans expected entering the season.
As has often been the case this season, running back Christian McCaffrey was the most dynamic player on the field for the Panthers. He carried the ball 14 times for 70 yards and caught 11 passes for 121 yards, accounting for over half of the Panthers' 347 yards on offense. McCaffrey often puts up yardage against the Falcons, gaining 656 yards in five career games, but he's scored just two touchdowns.
In this weekend's matchup, Fewell isn't going to ask McCaffrey to do anything more than what he's done in these games but rather implore his other offensive weapons to help carry the load.
"Other members of our team have to score," Fewell said. "Christian has a lot of productivity on our football team. He can't be a one-man team. We have to get contributions from other areas of our football team. Our tight ends, our wide receivers, our quarterback and our special teams. Our defense can score. We have to put points on the board against a good Falcons football team."
Offensively for the Falcons, Calvin Ridley was the go-to-guy for Matt Ryan in the first meeting against the Panthers. The second-year receiver caught all eight of the passes thrown his way for 143 yards and a touchdown.
Atlanta has had success throwing the ball this season, but it has had to throw the ball too frequently while trailing in most games. The Falcons would like to establish more balance, and they now face a defense that gave up 248 rushing yards to the Washington Redskins. The Panthers have the 29th-ranked run defense in the league, allowing 137.5 yards per game, but the Falcons are 30th in rushing yards per game with an average of 74.3.
"We just have to keep working at it. We've done that," Ryan said of establishing the run. "We've had some success at times and haven't been as consistent as we'd like in other times. We have to stick with it. Particularly against this team, they're an excellent pass rush unit. You have to find a way to get the run game going. You have to stick with it. You have to be productive and efficient. It's going to be a good challenge for us, for sure."