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5 Things to Watch: Panthers want to raise the level on defense

5thingstowatch_21-week8

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers have lost four straight games, but the way they lost the last game will stick in their mind.

That's why Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said he wanted to see how his team reacted this week, after the way things unraveled in a 25-3 loss to the Giants.

They're catching a Falcons team that is heading the other direction, but they're also catching them in the wrong place.

You'll have to pardon the horrible holiday-themed pun, but whether it's the Georgia Dome or Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Panthers are 7-19 all-time in the House of Horrors in Atlanta. The Falcons lead the overall series 33-19.

But the Panthers are still solid on defense, and are hoping to get some key parts back on the field (linebacker Shaq Thompson) or on the field for the first time this season (cornerback Stephon Gilmore). They could help add a spark to a team that needs one on both sides of the ball.

DEFENSE NEEDS TO BRING IT

With the uncertainty on offense at the moment, the Panthers' defense knows it needs to keep the level high.

Whether it's fair or unfair, they probably should, since that's where most of the team's expenditures in terms of cash and draft capital have been.

They spent the entire 2020 NFL Draft on defense (along with their 2021 first-rounder), along with free-agent cash for parts including Haason Reddick, DaQuan Jones, Morgan Fox and A.J. Bouye, along with trading for Gilmore and CJ Henderson.

The Panthers were first in the league in total defense after Week 3, and while they've slipped to third, it's still a good group. And this week, they've emphasized that it's going to take every one of them.

"Just fixing the little things, man," Reddick said when asked how they could get back to their previous level. "Little things here and there. One person here, one person on the next play. We've just got to get back to all 11 guys doing their job on each and every play, instead of a guy here and a guy there trying to make a play. Just everybody doing their job.

"It's just all 11 players doing their job. It sounds simple because it is that simple. We've just got to get it done."

SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE ON THIRD DOWN

The Panthers offense has struggled mightily on third downs this season, as they're converting just 31.6 percent of them on the season, which ranks 28th in the league.

That has a trickle-down effect on the entire team, as it keeps them from running the ball in the volume they'd prefer, and it wears out the defense by limiting the time they get to rest.

On the other hand, the Falcons have had their problems getting teams off the field.

Their defense is allowing 47.8 percent conversions, which is 29th in the league.

PROTECTION ISSUES

Part of that problem on third downs stems from the issues they've had protecting quarterback Sam Darnold.

He's been sacked 15 times in the last four weeks, and 24 times on the year. Only the Bears (26) have allowed more sacks.

Darnold made a point this week to say he wasn't blaming his line for the problems (since part of it is on him for hanging onto the ball too long at times), and they've likewise circled the wagons around a line that keeps changing.

"I don't think it's anything having to do with him worried about what's happening up front," offensive coordinator Joe Brady said of Darnold's issues with being in a hurry.

With right guard John Miller going on IR this week, they're about to start their sixth different combination of linemen in eight weeks.

The Falcons at least aren't the most ferocious pass-rushing team in the league, as they're 30th in the league with 10 sacks.

Atlanta still has defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, and with the Panthers starting a patchwork middle of the line Sunday (they'll start either Trent Scott or Dennis Daley or Brady Christensen at right guard), they could still be vulnerable up the middle.

OH, THAT GUY AGAIN

Speaking of problematic matchups, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has generally enjoyed games against the Panthers.

He's 10-3 all-time against the Panthers in Atlanta, with a 101.0 passer rating in home games.

Last week, he led his 40th game-winning drive of his career, which tied him with John Elway for seventh on the all-time list. Part of that stems from being old (35), but also that he's pretty good at this.

"He looks like he's 25 again," Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow said last week.

ROCK HILL BRAGGING RIGHTS

With Stephon Gilmore activated today, he'll get to see one of his fellow hometown products in the NFL.

Gilmore went to Rock Hill's South Pointe High, and is one of two first-round picks the school has produced (along with former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney).

But that's still well behind their cross-town rivals.

Atlanta's Cordarrelle Patterson, the Vikings' 29th overall pick in 2013, is one of five first-rounders from Northwestern High.

That list began with safety Rick Sanford (New England, 1979), along with Jeff Burris (Buffalo, 1994), Ben Watson (New England, 2004), and Johnathon Joseph (Cincinnati, 2006).

BONUS GAMEDAY RECIPE

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Carolina is 20-33 all-time against Atlanta.