The Atlanta Falcons renewed their NFC South rivalry with the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night, hoping to end the first half of the 2020 season on a positive note. The Falcons did that, earning their second victory of the year, both of which have come on the road.
Behind a strong defensive effort and solid play from Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, the Falcons defeated the Panthers, 25-17, to kick off Week 8. Here are five observations from the Falcons' victory:
1. Defensive Stars Shine in Primetime
It's been a long time since one could argue the defense led the Falcons to victory. Not that the Atlanta offense played poorly Thursday night, but the Falcons defense was very good and borderline great in many areas.
Carolina gained just 304 yards, which was a season low against the Falcons defense. It was also 133 yards fewer than what the Panthers offense posted less than three weeks ago in Atlanta.
Part of why the Panthers gained only 304 yards was because they ran just 52 plays. The Falcons continuously stalled Panthers' drives on third down. Carolina converted just two third-down attempts and went 3-for-13 on third and fourth downs combined. That low conversion rate includes a successful fake punt.
The Falcons had a collective effort in recording all those third and fourth down stops. Foyesade Oluokun helped stuff two fourth-down attempts. Early in the second half, Keanu Neal nearly forced a takeaway on a big hit against Mike Davis. Still, the incompletion led to one of those failed fourth downs. Neal led the team with seven tackles.
Deion Jones played extremely well too, posting a team-high three quarterback hits and a sack. Blidi Wreh-Wilson had a tackle for loss and game-sealing interception.
After weeks of discussing the possibility of the Falcons beginning a full rebuild, the team may finally be proving to have the right pieces on defense.
2. Pass Rush, Missed Panthers Opportunities Hold Teddy Bridgewater to Under 200 Passing Yards
The Falcons recorded three sacks, which was their most in a game since Week 1. In the first matchup against Carolina, the Falcons defense had zero sacks. Two of those three sacks came on third down.
Even when Bridgewater avoided sacks, he was under duress and struggled to push the ball downfield. The Falcons held D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson, who came into the night as the top receiving duo in the NFL from a yardage perspective, to 103 combined yards and zero scores.
When the Panthers did have open receivers down the field, Bridgewater missed (with the exception of the big play on the final drive).
However, there was one big negative from the aggressive nature of the Falcons defense Thursday. Two penalties nullified a fourth Falcons sack in the third quarter. One of those fouls was a tripping call against Dante Fowler and the other was a late hit to the neck area from Charles Harris. Both fouls were against Bridgewater.
Neither play is acceptable in 2020. The penalties coming on the same play against a quarterback who lost years of his career because of a serious knee injury made the two Falcons fouls even more egregious. The officials rightfully ejected Harris from the game.
Bridgewater didn't miss a full series, but who knows if the injury impacted his play during the fourth quarter.
3. Vintage Matt Ryan & Julio Jones
Jones was ready to go right at the start of Monday's contest. He caught four passes on Atlanta's first drive and led the team with seven catches, 137 yards and 10 targets. Calvin Ridley left in the second quarter with an ankle injury, so Jones dominating was key to the Falcons' victory.
Ryan failed to throw a touchdown for a third time this season, but he completed 21 of 30 passes for 281 yards, averaging 9.4 yards per attempt. Ryan also rushed for 27 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown, and tossed an interception.
Outside of Jones and Ryan, Hayden Hurst was the offense's next best weapon. He seems to grow more comfortable in the offense every week. He was second on the team with five catches and 54 receiving yards.
4. Redzone Struggles Don't Cost Falcons
The Falcons out-gained the Panthers 401-304, but Atlanta only scored touchdowns on two of five red zone possessions. The failure to finish more drives in the end zone didn't prevent the Falcons from winning, but it kept the score closer than it should have been.
Atlanta came into Week 8 ranked 23rd in red zone touchdown percentage, and the team's percentage dropped to 55.0 percent for 2020 after Thursday. Despite winning two of the last three games, the Falcons offense has converted just half of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns since Week 5.
That has to improve, and there's one obvious way to do that, which will be explained next.
While he did miss an extra point, Younghoe Koo going 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts bailed out Atlanta's poor red zone offense against Carolina.
5. Dirk Koetter Remains Committed to Inefficient Running Game
Give Koetter credit for sticking with the ground attack. The Falcons called 36 rushes with only 32 drop backs. It's the first time all season Atlanta had more runs than passes. As a result, the Falcons rushed for 131 yards and two touchdowns.
But the efficiency on the ground was nonexistent. The Falcons averaged 3.6 yards per carry in large part because Todd Gurley gained just 2.6 yards per attempt. Brian Hill, who was second on the team in carries, posted 5.0 yards on each run while Ryan raised the average too with 4.5 yards per rush.
Gurley ended the night with 18 carries, and he did score his league-leading eighth touchdown, but he's rushed for under 3.0 yards per carry in each of the last three games.
That's not a good sign, and it's hurting the red zone offense. Gurley carried the ball on six of Atlanta's seven running plays inside the Panthers' 20-yard line on Thursday. He averaged 3.3 yards per carry on those runs.
Look for Hill to receive even more touches going forward, especially in the red zone.