Atlanta Falcons strong safety Kemal Ishmael (36) strips the football from New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) after a reception near the goal line in the second half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014. Falcons free sa
Rogelio Solis
December 25, 2014

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) Kemal Ishmael has filled William Moore's strong safety job fairly well this season for the Atlanta Falcons.

Robert McClain has essentially done the same for injured cornerback Robert Alford the last five games.

Now if the secondary can make it through this week without losing another starter, the Falcons like their chances to beat Carolina and win the weak NFC South.

''It's going to be fast and physical, but you've got to keep it under control and not do anything crazy,'' Ishmael said. ''You've got to keep a cool head and just make the plays that are presented to you.''

The game Sunday against Carolina will mark Ishmael's ninth start this year for Moore, whose season ended with a shoulder injury last week in a victory at New Orleans.

Ishmael believes the Falcons (6-9) will keep their expectations modest against the Panthers (6-8-1).

The defense is coming a season-best performance - four takeaways and five sacks - but Atlanta still ranks last against the pass, next-to-last in sacks and eighth-worst in points allowed.

Atlanta began last week as a heavy underdog against Drew Brees, having gone 3-14 against the Saints' quarterback and 1-7 at New Orleans.

Against Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, the Falcons are 4-3, but his strong arm, big frame and fast legs have created problems.

Newton has averaged 244 yards passing, throwing for 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in the rivalry. Those are decent numbers for Atlanta, but Newton has hurt them badly on the ground, averaging 7.6 yards on 54 runs.

''Great quarterback, dual threat,'' Ishmael said. ''He hasn't missed a beat. The guy is running up the field, throwing the ball well and making plays, man. He's going to be a big focus for us.''

The Falcons' run defense has done well two weeks in a row, holding Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell, the NFL's second-leading rusher, to 2.4 yards per attempt on 20 carries.

Saints running back Mark Ingram had only 38 yards on 13 carries, but Brees isn't an open-field running threat like Newton.

Carolina's backfield is loaded, too. Jonathan Stewart leads the NFL over the last four weeks with 437 yards rushing and has averaged over 5 yards per carry in 11 career games against Atlanta. DeAngelo Williams, who practiced Thursday with a cast on his broken right hand, has averaged 4.4 yards in 15 games against the Falcons.

''If we don't stop them, it's going to be tough to win the game,'' McClain said. ''We've got to go out there, stop the run and minimize Cam on his explosives, try to make plays on the ball and get turnovers.''

McClain and starting cornerback Desmond Trufant each picked off passes last week. Ishmael teamed with reserve safety Dezmen Southward to force a goal-line fumble from tight end Jimmy Graham.

The Falcons will need to do something similar against Carolina.

''We've been through every situation, ups and downs, had the leads and losing (streaks),'' Ishmael said. ''We've been through everything. For it to come down to this last game is a blessing. We're still in it. We treated the last game like a playoff game so we're going to do that with this one, too.''

Notes: Pro Bowl WR Julio Jones (hip) was held out of practice for the second straight day. ... RB Steven Jackson (quadriceps) and reserve CB Josh Wilson (hamstring) also didn't participate. ... WR Roddy White (ankle), WR Harry Douglas (foot) and RG Jon Asamoah (back) were limited in practice.

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