The Panthers square off against the Falcons in an NFC South clash on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium. Here are five things to watch.
Can the Panthers stop the run?
After the 49ers exploded for 232 rushing yards in Week 8, questions began to arise surrounding the Panthers' usually stout run defense. In the two weeks since, things haven't gotten much better.
Last week against the Packers, the Panthers allowed 163 yards on the ground – the third-highest total of the season. In the last three games, the Panthers have given up 172 rushing yards per game, ranking second worst in the league.
With a rush-heavy Atlanta team coming to town, the Panthers are looking to shore things up this Sunday. In the Falcons' upset over New Orleans last Sunday, they were able to rush for 143 yards.
"They ran the ball up and down the field," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "We can't allow that, because they established the run early and often. Then Matt Ryan got going and made some big throws. It was just clicking on all cylinders."
Despite the outside criticism, head coach Ron Rivera has confidence in his run defense. The way he looks at it, the problem isn't with the system as a whole, but just a handful of plays here and there.
"The biggest problem we've had is we've given up chunk yards," Rivera said. "You'd be more concerned if it was a consistent five yards at a time, but when you give up a chunk yard, it throws your average completely off."
It looks like the Panthers will get a bit of help from the Falcons themselves. Earlier this week, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said it would be a "long shot" for starting running back Devonta Freeman to play against the Panthers. Freeman has yet to practice this week with a foot injury.
Depth in the secondary
The run game isn't the only Falcons threat the Panthers defense will face on Sunday.
Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones is one of the best pass catchers in the league, and a challenge Panthers cornerback James Bradberry is looking forward to facing.
Bradberry's presence in the secondary was sorely missed last week against the Packers, but after a full week of practice, the Panthers' No. 1 cornerback is ready to bounce back from a groin injury.
Beyond the Bradberry-Jones matchup, there are other question marks in the defensive backfield. Cornerbacks Donte Jackson and Ross Cockrell each suffered injuries during last week's game against the Packers and did not participate in either Wednesday or Thursday's practice.
The secondary was stretched so thin last week that special teams standout and safety Colin Jones saw playing time in certain packages, as well as cornerback Cole Luke, who was just recently elevated from the practice squad.
Rivera used one word to describe his feelings on the secondary: concerned.
The lack of depth has caused enough worry for the Panthers to add an additional cornerback this week, as the team re-signed former Panther Corn Elder from the Giants' practice squad. The reasoning behind choosing Elder was because of his familiarity with the Panthers' defensive schemes.
"For the most part, everybody does the same thing, it's just a matter of verbiage," Rivera said. "Corn is a very bright guy. He sat down with (defensive backs coach) Perry (Fewell) when we first got him back and went through the stuff, and Perry said his retention was outstanding. So, if need be, Corn will get an opportunity."
The Panthers will need to start fast
An early touchdown is always nice, but scoring early has proven to be an effective way to beat the Falcons this season. So far, Atlanta has been outscored 150-63 in the first half, and 93-33 in the second quarter.
The Panthers haven't necessarily excelled scoring touchdowns early in games. Carolina is tied for 17th in the league with just four first quarter touchdowns this season, and they only have one opening drive touchdown on the year.
Quarterback Kyle Allen has proven he can excel when the Panthers have a lead, but he hasn't been as consistent when playing from behind as eight of his 10 turnovers this season have come when the Panthers were tied or trailing. But after his fourth quarter performance in Green Bay, that looks to be changing, but still – why not try to give the young quarterback an early lead?
Who's at left tackle?
Keeping up with who's starting along the offensive line for the Panthers this season has been quite a struggle.
The unit has been struck by a number of injuries, but luckily for the Panthers, it's a position with unusual depth. This week left tackle seems to be the position that's up in the air.
In last week's loss to Green Bay, starting left tackle Dennis Daley suffered a groin injury that has kept him out of practice this week. However, it seems to be perfect timing for fellow rookie Greg Little to make his return.
After a preseason concussion, Little reentered the protocol following the Week 4 matchup in Houston. Since then, the Panthers have played things safe as Little progressed through the protocol. Little was spotted out at practice last week working individually on the sidelines, but on Thursday he was officially cleared to fully participate.
"He had an opportunity to take some reps today," Rivera said on Thursday. "He took some yesterday, which was the final step, I believe, and he was cleared, so that was a very good sign."
Rivera indicated that if Daley is unable to play on Sunday against the Falcons, Little will be good to step in as his replacement. Little excelled during his only start this year in Arizona, so it will be interesting to see how he performs after missing six weeks.
DJ Moore shoots for three in a row
"DJ's done a great job. I think the wide receiver room in general, for a bunch of young guys, they just have a really good kind of maturity to them," tight end Greg Olsen said. "Those guys, they just play. They're obviously extremely talented. DJ for the last couple of weeks has been super productive."
This Sunday, Moore will have the opportunity to cross the hundred-yard mark for the third week in a row, giving him the longest streak for a Panther since Steve Smith's four-game stretch in 2008.
Atlanta's defense gives up an average of 270.3 passing yards per game (13th), and just last week allowed New Orleans' Michael Thomas to haul in 13 catches for 152 yards. Despite Moore's team-high 684 receiving yards, he's only found the end zone once this season, but that could change against a Falcons D that has allowed 19 passing touchdowns on the year (T-5th).
Carolina is 19-32 all-time against Atlanta.