NFL Preview - Atlanta (5-3) at Carolina (3-5)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - After a slow start to the season, Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner has found his stride over the last two weeks. With Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis suffering a season-ending injury last weekend, Turner's job this Sunday just got a bit easier.
Atlanta will try for just its second road win of the year and a season sweep of its series with Carolina this weekend at Bank of America Stadium.
Turner finished second in the NFL with 1,699 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns a season ago. Coming off a league-high 376 carries, the second-year Falcon's 105 rushing yards versus the Panthers in Week 2 represented his only game of breaking the century mark through his first six contests of 2009.
However, the 27-year-old back has posted 317 yards over his last two games. He notched what was then a season-high 151 yards versus New Orleans on November 2 before posting 166 yards on 18 carries in last weekend's 31-17 victory over the Washington Redskins. Turner added touchdown runs of 30 and 58 yards, with his second score coming early in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
Atlanta leaned heavily on Turner, as quarterback Matt Ryan attempted a season- low 24 passes, completing 17 of them for 135 yards, which also Ryan's lowest total of the season. Still, the young signal-caller was able to get the scoring going with a two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez and played relatively mistake-free football, tossing just one interception.
Defensively, Atlanta allowed 312 total yards but notched a club record-tying five sacks in the first half, while corner Tye Hill returned an interception 62 yards for a score.
The victory improved the Falcons to 4-0 at home on the season, but the team brings just a 1-3 road record into this contest. Getting better on the road is key to Atlanta's long-term success this season, as it will have a hard time securing a home playoff game since it trails the first-place and undefeated Saints by three games in the NFC South.
The Falcons visit the New York Giants next Sunday.
Carolina, meanwhile, had won three of four prior to last weekend's 30-20 loss to the Saints. The Panthers actually jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter on a pair of touchdown runs by DeAngelo Williams -- including a 66- yarder in the game's first minute -- but New Orleans crept back into the game and went ahead on John Carney's 40-yard field goal with 4:36 to go in the fourth quarter.
Any comeback hopes ended for the Panthers when Williams fumbled at his own one-yard line, a gift that New Orleans took into the end zone.
With quarterback Jake Delhomme struggling, Carolina ran the ball 39 times versus the Saints, notching 182 yards. The Panthers defense, meanwhile, held the Saints to just 84 yards on the ground, although New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees completed 24-of-35 pass attempts for 330 yards.
The biggest thing to come out of the game for the Panthers, though, was the loss of Davis. The outside linebacker suffered a torn ACL in his right knee, an injury that landed him on injured reserve Tuesday. Davis had notched 61 tackles, two interceptions and a safety in seven games this year.
With several other Panthers hurting, the fact that Carolina will play two games in five days starting on Sunday (it hosts Miami next Thursday) is what could bury the team for good just one season removed from a division title.
Atlanta leads the all-time series with Carolina, 18-11, including a 28-20 home victory over the Panthers in Week 2. The teams embarked on a conventional home-and-home split last season, including a 24-9 win when the Falcons visited Charlotte in Week 4. The Falcons last won in Carolina in 2007.
Panthers head coach John Fox enters Sunday's contest with a 6-9 career mark against Atlanta, while the Falcons' Mike Smith is 2-1 against both Fox and Carolina as a head coach.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
While Turner (720 rushing yards) had been struggling to pick up yards, he has had no problem finding the end zone. He has scored a touchdown in seven straight games, amassing 10 in that span to rank second in the NFL. Turner's ability to score has the Falcons 11th in the league at 25.3 points per game, though Ryan (1784 passing yards, 13 TD, 10 INT) deserves credit there as well. The quarterback has a touchdown pass in all but one game this year, though he has also been picked off nine times over his last five games. He also hasn't thrown for more than 200 yards in three of his last four outing, as Atlanta has dropped to 19th in passing offense (215.8 yards per game). That has had an impact on wideout Roddy White (570 passing yards, 6 TD), who made just three catches for 27 yards last weekend. He also had a string of four straight games with a touchdown catch end. Gonzalez (434 passing yards, 4 TD) made a team- high five catches for 41 yards versus the Redskins. Perhaps part of Ryan's struggles are pressure-related, as he has been sacked 10 times in the last three weeks after going down just twice in the first five games.
The Panthers were struggling to stop the run before Davis' injury, so who knows who will stop Turner now. Carolina was able to keep the Saints' ground game in check, but still ranks 23rd in the NFL versus the run (122.1 ypg). That should make the Falcons go run-heavy again, as the Panthers are sixth versus the pass (181.8 ypg). With no Davis, middle linebacker and leading tackler Jon Beason (63 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) will have to rally a unit that will see Landon Johnson replace Davis. Free safety Charles Godfrey (21 tackles) has also missed Carolina's last three games with an ankle injury, with rookie Sherrod Martin (9 tackles, 2 INT) having started in his place. With Atlanta's offensive line struggling to protect Ryan, defensive ends Julius Peppers (28 tackles, 7 sacks) and Tyler Brayton (26 tackles, 2.5 sacks) should get a chance to make an impact. Brayton had Carolina's lone sack versus the Saints, while Peppers has 21 1/2 sacks in his last 22 games. Corner Chris Gamble (24 tackles) had an interception against New Orleans, his first of the year, and returned the pick 41 yards to set up a field goal.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Williams (768 rushing yards, 7 TD) deserves a lot of credit for his work last week, considering that Carolina was without its top two fullbacks in Brad Hoover (ankle) and Tony Fiammetta (concussion). That left Tyrell Sutton to serve in that role, and he could see time there again this Sunday with Hoover doubtful and Fiammetta questionable. Backup tailback Jonathan Stewart (384 rushing yards, 4 TD) carried the ball 13 times last week, but managed only 24 yards. Still, the duo have helped produce the third-best rushing attack in the NFL at 153.0 yards per game. That run-heavy scheme has taken the pressure off Delhomme (1463 passing yards, 5 TD), who still leads the NFL with 13 interceptions despite having not thrown a pick in his last two games. He completed 17-of-30 pass attempts last weekend for 201 yards without a touchdown. Leading receiver Steve Smith (34 receptions, 1 TD) had four catches for 64 yards, while Dwayne Jarrett, making his second straight start in place of the injured Muhsin Muhammad (knee), added four receptions for 30 yards. Muhammad did return to practice on Wednesday, as did Fiammetta.
With Delhomme having been sacked 16 times this year, the Falcons will try to keep up the pressure one week removed from its club record-tying effort. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (24 tackles, 4 sacks) had 2 1/2 of Atlanta's five sacks -- a career high -- and led the team with 12 tackles, while corner Chevis Jackson (11 tackles) and end Kroy Biermann (22 tackles, 4 sacks) were both credited with full sacks. While the front four will have to keep an eye on Williams out of the backfield, expect linebackers Curtis Lofton (84 tackles) and Mike Peterson (55 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) to be on the running back as well. Atlanta struggled in defending the run against the Redskins, yielding 136 yards on the ground despite Washington's Clinton Portis leaving early with an injury. Although the Falcons rank 24th against the run (123.5 ypg) and 27th versus the pass (246.4), they are 12th in points allowed at 20.8 per game.
Turner is an outstanding play this week, given his Week 2 success versus the Panthers as well as his four-touchdown performance versus them last year. Although Ryan has struggled as of late, he did notch a career-high three touchdown passes versus Carolina in the first meeting this season and could be a sleeper pick this weekend. A duplication of that performance would be good news for Gonzalez and White owners. Gonzalez did catch a touchdown pass versus the Panthers in Week 2. Atlanta's defense is coming off an excellent performance, but is risky because they give up a lot of yards and could get burned by the big play.
Williams owners hope he can rip off some more touchdowns this weekend. The Carolina back has caught fire after a slow start and fantasy owners should continue to ride him, as he has posted 548 yards and five touchdowns in his last four games. That has hampered Stewart's numbers, making him a risky play this weekend. Delhomme likely won't get many chances to make plays unless the Panthers fall behind, but that also give him more opportunities to make mistakes. Steve Smith is still a decent play, as he is Delhomme's No. 1 target. Avoid Carolina's defense.
The Falcons get a good opportunity to get their road game on track. Although the Panthers showed a spirited effort versus the Saints, they also showed a lack of killer instinct. A quick lead and solid run game is what the Panthers need to win, but the loss of Davis really opens up the field for Turner and Ryan. The Falcons will have little trouble putting points up on the board against a Panthers defense that will have no answer for Atlanta's run game, and the Falcons will be on the way to staying in the thick of the 2009 postseason race.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 24, Panthers 17
11/12 17:28:39 ET