The Carolina Panthers (2-7) are in shock after an embarrassing 42-21 road loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Interim head coach Steve Wilks benched starting quarterback PJ Walker at halftime, got coy about the position after the game, then fired two defensive assistants on Monday.
To make matters worse, the Panthers have a quick turnaround in Week 10 as they host the Atlanta Falcons at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night. The two teams faced off just two weeks ago in Atlanta and the Falcons won a thriller 37-34 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Despite the quarterback conundrum and the hustle and bustle of the coaching staff, the Panthers will look to earn a prime-time upset win over the Falcons.
Here are five things you need to know about the Panthers’ Week 10 opponent, the Falcons:
Cordarrelle Patterson is back and ready to rock
Falcons starting running back Cordarrelle Patterson was sidelined four games in the first half of the season with a knee injury. Patterson returned to the lineup in Week 9 against the Los Angeles Chargers and drove in for 44 rushing yards, nine receiving yards and two rushing touchdowns.
Patterson is one of the most versatile players in the league, having gone from special teams ace to gimmicky weapon to starting wide to starting running back. Despite the many positional changes, Patterson is equipped to line up virtually anywhere on the court.
The Falcons streamlined Patterson’s effectiveness by moving him around the formation. Although he can run between tackles, he is not a typical north-south runner. The Falcons will use Patterson in different ways and let him create with the ball in his hands.
In Week 8, the Panthers gave up 167 rushing yards to the Falcons, and that was without Patterson. With the workaholic runner in the backfield, the Panthers could have additional headaches in the rematch.
Beware of the big ones
The Falcons’ two best passing weapons are Kyle Pitts and Drake London. The Falcons spent back-to-back first-round picks on the pair, and they delivered early in their respective careers.
London is listed as 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, while Pitts is listed as 6-foot-6 and 246 pounds. These big, tall receivers could pose a major threat in red-zone matchups against smaller defenders.
In eight games this season, Pitts has caught 23 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns. One of those scores came in the win over the Panthers in Week 8.
London caught 33 passes for 369 yards and two touchdowns in nine games (seven starts). He had four catches for 31 yards in the previous game with the Panthers.
London is particularly effective on jump-ball plays, while Pitts is more of a threat in midfield.
Marcus Mariota’s Year of Revival
The Falcons signed Marcus Mariota this offseason following the team’s decision to leave longtime quarterback Matt Ryan in March. Mariota spent the previous two seasons as a replacement for Derek Carr in Las Vegas with the Raiders.
Mariota, a former No. 2 overall pick, had a tough end to his career with the Tennessee Titans in 2019. Mariota was benched in favor of Ryan Tannehill, who led the Titans to a playoff berth playoffs. The Titans stayed with Tannehill and signed him to a massive contract extension, while Mariota was forced to seek backup gigs in free agency. Three years later, Mariota is on his third NFL team.
Back in the starting role in Atlanta, Mariota took advantage of his last opportunity.
Mariota is completing 61.7% of his passes and he has produced 1,561 passing yards, 10 passing touchdowns and six interceptions. He also rushed for 304 yards and three rushing touchdowns in nine games.
Mariota is still a dangerous dual-threat weapon. He can make accurate pocket throws and steal yardage with his above-average speed at quarterback. The Panthers felt that firsthand in Week 8. Mariota threw for 253 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, while running for 43 yards in Game 1.
Hawks can pick up a lot of ground
The Falcons have one of the most explosive offenses in the league. While Patterson was sidelined for four games, the Falcons still rank among the top teams in rushing 20 and 40 yards this season.
In nine games, the Falcons have nine carries of 20 or more yards, which is tied for sixth in the league on Monday. The team also produced three carries of 40 or more yards, which is tied for fourth most in that span.
Mariota’s mobility helped the running game. The quarterback’s legs took up a lot of ground, but his quickness also served as a distraction for defenses. If a team tries to stop Mariota, they aren’t as concerned about another potential ball carrier, and sometimes that’s proven successful for the running game in Atlanta.
Against the Panthers in Week 8, Mariota and backup running back Caleb Huntley both ran for 30 yards.
Clean Panthers QB in the forecast?
The Falcons have struggled to fire opposing quarterbacks this season. Only the Raiders have fewer sacks this season than the Falcons.
In nine games, the Falcons produced just 12 sacks, two less than the Panthers’ total of 14. Despite defensive tackle Grady Jarrett producing 4.5 sacks in the first half of the season, the rest of the group struggled to shut down.
As far as pressure goes, Jarrett and passer Lorenzo Carter, who knocked out Walker in Week 8, are really the only notable names for the Falcons.
With the Panthers offensive line doing a relatively good job of protecting Walker, this could be a safe play in the pocket for Carolina’s offense. The Panthers have allowed just six sacks in the past four weeks.
This story was originally published November 8, 2022 6:10 a.m.