The Panthers head to Atlanta in search of revenge against their NFC South rivals Sunday. Here are five things to watch.
It's a new era of Carolina Panthers football, at least for the next four weeks.
With interim head coach Perry Fewell now at the helm, the Panthers will look to snap a four-game losing streak and salvage the remainder of the season starting Sunday in Atlanta.
Earlier in the week, Fewell said not to expect any drastic changes as far as schematics go, but that there may be a new wrinkle here and there. However, the most important thing to keep an eye out for is how the players respond to their new head coach.
Fewell, the former secondary coach, has the stamp of approval from safety Tre Boston and his former position group, but we'll have to wait and see how the rest of the team buys in.
"I'm excited to see what he can do for this team. I'm willing and I want to fight for him. This is his opportunity and I'm going to make sure we get the best of it," Boston said of Fewell. "He's the right guy for the job."
Allen looking to bounce back in new offense
When the Panthers and the Falcons faced off in Week 11, it marked a game quarterback Kyle Allen would probably hope to forget.
Despite setting a new career high in passing yards (325), Allen threw four interceptions, no touchdowns, and was sacked five times. Talk about a rough day.
But Fewell expects the rematch to play in Allen's favor now that he's been exposed to the Falcons defensive schemes.
"I would think it would be good for Kyle because he's seen them before, and he has experience with them before," Fewell said. "Obviously, they've seen him and Kyle, he's seen some of the schemes they run against him, and therefore he's now going to be a lot sharper and keener when he sees the same schemes again."
Allen shares his new head coach's sentiments.
"It's good to have a game against them to be prepared against their defense and their personnel," Allen said. "Hopefully, we come out with a better product than last game. Obviously, the pressure was an issue and me turning the ball over was a major issue."
Another advantage for Allen and the offense this time around will be newly named offensive coordinator Scott Turner. With Fewell taking over, former offensive coordinator Norv Turner has transitioned into a new role as special assistant to the head coach, with his son, Scott, now calling plays on offense.
While the Falcons may have a beat on Allen's style of play, the new twist of the younger Turner calling plays may provide an element of surprise for the Panthers.
"I'm my own person. My brain works differently," Scott Turner said. "You've got 40 seconds to make a play-call, so the way I think is going to be different than my dad."
In the two weeks since the last time Allen faced Atlanta, his numbers have improved, throwing five touchdowns compared to just one interception, but he's still been sacked 11 times in that span. With an injury-depleted offensive line up front, Allen could be in for another long day on the turf.
Stopping the pass
While the Panthers may have held Atlanta to just 54 yards on the ground in their prior meeting, they had a tougher time through the air. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw for 311 yards and a touchdown against the Panthers, thanks in large part to wide receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley.
One of the ways the Falcons were able to open up the passing game against the Panthers in Week 11 was by hiding Jones, their No. 1 receiver, in the slot and preventing Carolina's No. 1 cornerback, James Bradberry, from locking onto him.
"That is very challenging for a defense when they move the receiver around like that," Fewell said. "Obviously, you have to change up your coverage combinations and you don't always get the chance to match up like you want to match up."
That much was clear last time the teams met when Jones ended up aligned inside on a three-receiver set and linebacker Luke Kuechly was tasked with carrying him all the way downfield. Kuechly is incredible in many ways, but matching up against an All-Pro wideout 40 yards down the field isn't his strong suit.
"It's a big challenge for us," Fewell said. "Since we're now aware, we know that he moves around and we're aware of that, we have to make some secondary changes and try to make the appropriate changes so that we can get help if he's in one of those positions."
Surprisingly, though, it wasn't Jones who did the most damage last time. Ridley hauled in eight passes for 143 yards and a touchdown, compared to six catches for 91 yards for Jones. This time around, the Panthers will need to be sure and focus equal attention on both receivers and not be too locked in on just Jones.
Eliminating the week's distractions
With so much going on this week, it was easy to forget there's still a game to be played on Sunday. Football coaches are constantly talking about focusing on the job at hand and eliminating distractions, but the Panthers had a huge one looming over the team all week.
Tuesday's firing of Ron Rivera dominated the conversation in the locker room Wednesday, and it was clear players had a lot on their minds in regard to the coaching change. Still, the league waits for no one, and kickoff is quickly approaching. There's no time for moping – the Panthers have to move forward.
"You have no choice," said tight end Greg Olsen, who will miss his first game of the season with a concussion. "The unfortunate reality about the NFL is, and I've said this to you guys before, the part everybody sees is the part everybody wants to sign up for. It's the part that nobody else sees that not everybody's cut out for, and this is one of those moments."
It will be interesting to see if the team is able to back up Olsen's words and push the distractions aside to focus on playing a complete game on Sunday. If they can't we might be seeing a repeat of what happened against Atlanta three weeks ago.
"We've got a game to play," Olsen said. "That ball is going to kick off at 1 o'clock, and Atlanta doesn't care. They have no sympathy for us. They don't care. They're fighting for their lives. They've got three wins, four wins, they're scratching and clawing to save their souls, too.
"They don't have any sympathy; they don't care what we're going through. They're preparing to beat us. They just beat us three weeks ago and they're trying to do it again. If we don't put the focus in and concentrate, you're setting yourself up for a bad situation."
Playing in Atlanta
The city of Atlanta has never been kind to the Panthers.
It seems like no matter how good or bad either team is, Carolina always struggles when it comes time to play the Falcons on the road. In 2015, it was in Atlanta where the Falcons snapped the Panthers' 14-game unbeaten record.
A win on Sunday would mark Carolina's first victory in Atlanta since Week 17 of the 2014 season when the Panthers defeated the Falcons 34-3 to claim the NFC South division title.
Overall, the Panthers have just a 6-18 all-time record in Atlanta.
Carolina is 18-31 all-time against Atlanta.