The trendy talking point for any talking heads referencing the Panthers-Falcons game early in the week will be the egregiously ejection-worthy blow delivered on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton by Atlanta safety Damontae Kazee.
The less juicy but more game-shaping talking point, however, is the repeated blows delivered by the Falcons offense against a Panthers defense not accustomed to being pushed around.
After the defense did the job for the first quarter-and-a-half, putting Newton in position to forge a lead for Carolina after the scary hit that did result in Kazee’s ejection, the Falcons offense had its way. Atlanta scored 21 points to take command, passing, running and scoring at will.
When Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan put Atlanta up 31-17 midway through the fourth quarter with his second rushing touchdown of the game (yes, that Matt Ryan, who has never had more than two of those in a season), the Falcons’ per-play average stood at a gaudy 7.9 yards. With lead back Devonta Freeman out with an injury, Tevin Coleman ended Carolina’s NFL-best streak of 21 games not allowing a 100-yard rusher – in the third quarter.
This isn’t the first time the Panthers’ proud defense has been gashed by a high-powered NFC South offense, and realistically it won’t be the last. Just last season, Carolina yielded 34 points at home to the Saints in Week 3, yet the defense went on to finish in the top 10 and play a key role in an 11-5 campaign. In 2013, the start of the run for the defense and the franchise as a whole (four playoff berths in five years), the Saints put up 31 points in a late-season showdown that easily could have gotten even more out of hand. That broke up an eight-game winning streak for the Panthers.
Is there reason for disappointment? Of course, and the players on the defensive unit are the most disappointed of them all. Linebacker Luke Kuechly had a couple of rare missed tackles, and the defensive front didn’t sack Ryan a single time.
Is there reason for concern? Not so fast. The Falcons are among the most talented offenses in the league and were playing at home and trying to avoid an 0-2 start. They moved the ball as well as any team last season but struggled in the red zone throughout and again in an opening loss to the Eagles, but they didn’t let those opportunities pass them by on this day.
The Panthers defense isn’t always going to pitch a near-shutout like it did in Week 1 against Dallas, when Carolina clamped down on running back Ezekiel Elliott and made the Cowboys one-dimensional in a way they couldn’t handle. But it also isn’t often going to get gashed like it did Sunday in Atlanta.
The next challenge for the unit is a sneaky-tough one, against a Bengals team lightly regarded entering the season that rolled offensively against what seemed to be a stout Ravens defense Thursday night. That also was a division matchup, the more likely setting for out-of-the-ordinary things to happen as well as the teams know each other.
Few expected the Panthers defense to struggle on the level it did Sunday. Don’t expect to it happen very often.