With so much talk about Cam Newton leading the Panthers into the Georgia Dome on Sunday, it's easy to believe the NFC South foe is a one-man wrecking crew.
Don't believe that. One pillar of the former head coach John Fox's philosophy is still in place. There's a good running game with the Panthers and it's not because Cam Newton is capable of running like a cornerback with a tight end's body.
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have been mainstays in Carolina for a number of years and they've combined in the past few seasons to independently light up the Falcons. In the past three meetings, Williams has averaged 117 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
In last season's final game of the year, the Falcons clamped down on Stewart, limiting him to 31 yards on 13 carries, but that was largely because the Panthers had to abandon the run game after falling behind 21-0 at halftime. In the first meeting of the year last season, the 2008 first-round pick rushed for 133 yards.
The Panthers use the two backs in unique ways, as well, specifically flipping the roles you'd expect them to undertake. Stewart is the bigger back of the two while Williams' smaller stature and speed make him consistent with what many would consider a change-of-pace back. What Carolina is doing however is using Williams as the lead back and letting Stewart catch balls out of the backfield.
This season Stewart has 18 catches for 186 yards, an average of 10.3 yards per catch. That type of use by the backs is something Falcons head coach Mike Smith is expecting and is preparing his team for.
"Both of those guys are big, strong and fast running backs and it's about 50-50," Smith said on Thursday. "I think you're going to see one more in running situations and one more in passing situations. For the most part, we've got to make sure that we stop the run and that's going to be our number one objective. We don't want them to be able to run the football and last week, they got the run game rolling."
Stopping the run is critical every week, but this week it's imperative. If Carolina can establish their running game, it opens up the passing game, their most dangerous element. Newton's putting up passing yards by the bunches and his veteran wide receiver Steve Smith leads the NFL with four receptions of 50 yards or more.
Fortunately for Atlanta, they're built to stop the run. With run defenders aplenty in the front four and linebackers with the speed to run down the fleetest of fleet, the Falcons have a check mark in the column of defending the run game against the Panthers.
It won't take much, however, for the Carolina run game to get going. Williams ran for 115 yards last week against the Saints' run defense on just nine carries. Both backs are averaging over 4.4 yards per carry.
The Panthers feature a stable of runners from Stewart and Williams to Newton and Smith. They all do unique things with the ball in their hands, but their common bond is an ability to pick up significant chunks of the football field when they have a chance. If Atlanta can limit half of the quadruple attack, they could be looking at a .500 record on Sunday evening.