The Atlanta Falcons handed the Carolina Panthers their first loss of the 2015 season, just two weeks after being blanked by Carolina 38-0. Needless to say, the Falcons came into the matchup as underdogs. The Panthers are a very complete team. Their strengths on both sides of the ball match up poorly with Atlanta's weaknesses.
The loss was Atlanta's sixth in a row, and the Falcons were reeling. The team was losing game after game due to the same issues on both sides of the ball. The coaching staff and players could identify the reasons the team was losing games, but necessary corrections weren't being made. Their performance was so poor that it left many wondering if Dan Quinn had lost the team, and the extended losing streak raised the question of whether the Falcons were too stubborn to succeed.
Immediately after the loss to the Panthers in Charlotte, the Falcons traveled to Jacksonville to face the Jaguars. Suddenly, the issues that had plagued the Falcons over the previous six-week stretch, while not resolved, were improved. The Falcons snapped their six-game skid, beating Jacksonville 23-17. It was a step in the right direction for a team that looked completely lost against the Panthers in Week 14, but still, facing their undefeated division rival twice in three weeks was a tall order.
The Panthers' strengths don't match up well with Atlanta's weaknesses, a disparity that was certainly on display the first time these teams met. The Panthers scored 28 points and put up 349 yards of total offense before the half. With that kind of deficit, the Falcons were forced to abandon the run, netting just 54 yards on 16 carries against a tough Panthers defensive front. Carolina was favored coming into the matchup with the Falcons in Atlanta, rightfully so.
So how did Atlanta turn things around?
Establishing offensive balance
One of the biggest factors in Atlanta's early offensive success had been the balance they established with a strong ground game, mostly due to Devonta Freeman's explosive play. Against Jacksonville and in their win over the Panthers, the balance returned.
During that 5-0 stretch to start the season, the Falcons averaged 37 passing attempts per week balanced with 28.6 rushing attempts per game. Compare those numbers to the games they've lost in 2015, and there's a stark difference. In losses, the Falcons have averaged 48 passes per game and 18.7 rushing attempts per game. That lack of balance was sometimes dictated by the flow of games. If a team falls behind, it's more difficult to stick with the run, but still, this is a big disparity. A balanced offense keeps defenses honest, helps control the clock and takes pressure off the quarterback.
Against the Jaguars, Matt Ryan threw 35 passes. Freeman, Tevin Coleman and wide receiver Eric Weems combined for 83 yards on 30 carries. They didn't rack up a ton of yards, but they forced Jacksonville's defense to account for Freeman's big play ability.
In the win over Carolina, Ryan threw 30 passes and Freeman had 73 yards on 22 carries. Terron Ward added three yards on two carries. The Panthers have a tough defensive front, but the Falcons kept running it and chewing up clock.
Turnovers have been a problem for the Falcons' offense all season. In their seven losses, Ryan and backup quarterback Sean Renfree, who got some playing time in the blowout loss to the Panthers, have 10 interceptions. Ryan has 15 interceptions on the season. Atlanta also has 11 fumbles in their seven losses, a number of which were egregious and changed the flow of the respective games in which they occurred.
Overall, Atlanta's turnover differential is minus-6, but the number in losses is minus-11. Those mistakes have been difficult to overcome, particularly because a number of the turnovers either occurred in the red zone after a successful drive or put the defense in a position of defending a short field.
In Week 15, Ryan did throw one interception, but a Blake Bortles interception balanced it out for the Falcons. Against the Panthers, who lead the league in interceptions with 22 on the season and are tied for third in the league in forced fumbles with 21, Ryan fumbled once, on a very bad snap from center Mike Person. Rookie edge rusher Vic Beasley, Jr. leveled things out by forcing a Cam Newton fumble, recovered by Adrian Clayborn, to crush the Panthers' hope of a late-game comeback. Atlanta's turnover differential in these victories was zero.
Pressuring the passer
Atlanta still has an overall talent deficit on defense, and they still have big needs for improvement, but they actually got pressure on Cam Newton in their win over the Panthers, and it made a tremendous difference.
Newton is difficult to pressure. His size makes him difficult to bring down, he has great instincts and he's evasive. Atlanta has struggled against dual threat quarterbacks this season, and certainly had trouble containing Newton in the Week 14 beatdown in Charlotte.
The Falcons did manage to pressure Newton in Week 16, blitzing much more often than they have on average this season. Beasley sacked Newton once and Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Babineaux combined on a sack that took the Panthers out of field goal ranged and forced a crucial punt instead.
Laying a foundation for 2016
The team has areas of weakness they need to address. Interior line play, particularly at the center position, has been a problem through most of the season, and the linebacker corps is a weakness. They could use more help with the pass rush as well. It's very possible Atlanta will shake up their front office after the season and part ways with general manager Thomas Dimitroff and assistant GM Scott Pioli as the team looks to add talent through free agency and the draft.
Regardless of what happens in the offseason, the Falcons have an opportunity to finish the season strong if they're able to pull off a victory against another division rival, the New Orleans Saints, at home in Week 17.
Quinn said Monday that the Falcons' performance against the Panthers was a good way to evaluate the potential of the team moving forward.
"[Sunday], I thought, was a great measuring stick for us, not necessarily playing them, but I really wanted to see how we'd respond," Quinn said. "We'd been beaten, we'd been embarrassed, and I wanted to see how our guys would react, and over the last couple of weeks I think we've been playing more like the team I thought we'd be and that we can be and will be, and I see it by how hard the guys are playing for one another."
The six-game losing streak, particularly after such a strong start to the season left "some scars and some marks," according to Quinn, who said that missing the postseason stings. He is pleased with the way the team bounced back in Weeks 15 and 16, and he's looking forward to the opportunity to finish strong against the Saints in Week 17, especially after the Saints snapped Atlanta's five-game winning streak in their first meeting this season. A win this Sunday should give the team confidence heading into the offseason and as they look toward the 2016 season.
"It's ... a division game, and knowing the attitude and the style that we want to play with, but for sure it is [important]," Quinn said. "Everything counts, and it's a really important one for us. And obviously, when we went down there the first time, we didn't have a chance to play our best ball. They played a good game. That's why we're so jacked to play this one."