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Five Things to Watch: Panthers vs. Falcons

1. New look receiving corps:With wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin now in Buffalo, Carolina's receiving corps will look a bit different this weekend, and a bit speedier. Wide receiver Devin Funchess will fill the "X" receiver role, and the speedy Curtis Samuel is expected to receive a share of the looks as the "Z" receiver, running a more expansive route tree. 

"One minute he's running a shallow cross, the next minute he's running a dig, the next minute he's running a seven and then all the sudden he pops and runs a nine for you – not every time he comes on the field you run a reverse or a nine-route with him," head coach Ron Rivera said on Samuel. "Now they (defenses) have to pay attention."

The change and influx of speed in the staring lineup potentially adds another dimension to the Panthers offense, something they've lacked this season.

"Curtis is somebody in the draft that we thought really highly of because of his versatility to catch, run and return," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. "Having a player with that kind of speed certainly helps." 

2. Reviving the running game: The Panthers are hoping that the increase in speed on the field will also benefit their running game.

"(Speed) gets people to back off a little bit," Rivera said. "We have to do something to help alleviate the pressure that's being put on the offense to run the ball." 

Running the ball isn't something Carolina has been able to do on a consistent basis. The Panthers rank 20th in rushing this season, but in each of the previous four games the running backs failed to combine for at least 60 yards. Newton has lead the team in rushing the last three weeks.

While Atlanta isn't exactly a stout rush defense, Quinn believes his team is trending in the right direction after holding the Jets to 43 rushing yards last week.

"We were really committed to doing it right," Quinn said. "I thought the consistency of the run defense was what really jumped out. I thought they took a big step towards becoming the unit, especially in the run game, that they can be."


3. Beware Julio Jones: Panthers fans have tried to forget, and Falcons fans haven't forgotten. In the first meeting between these two teams last season, wide receiver Julio Jones totaled 300 receiving yards. It was a performance that's noted in Carolina's history books, for the wrong reasons. Yet, Quinn believes it may have been a one-time thing because of the way Carolina's young cornerbacks have developed since.

"What I've seen from them this year, I think the one game was just an anomaly that took place," Quinn said. "What I see from them is length and strength. They like to play close to the guys and make it hard to release. I have respect for what they do, and you can see their size and wanting to go in and tackle."

Cornerback James Bradberry exited Jones' monster game last season early with an injury. In the second meeting of the season, Bradberry limited Jones to 60 yards on four receptions. They'll line up against each other again this week.

"I know Dan Quinn is going to test me early," Bradberry said. "He's done it the last two games right out of the gate."

4. Turnovers and takeaways: Before the Panthers logged three takeaways against the Buccaneers last weekend, they sat at the bottom of the NFL in turnover margin. After giving the ball away twice against the Jets, the Falcons joined them. For the majority of the season the Panthers haven't been able to create takeaways, but they came in bunches on Sunday and helped fuel a sputtering offense.

"Defense played exceptional," quarterback Cam Newton said. "They just created a lot of turnovers that we needed as a team just for the morale."

The Panthers and Falcons are both undefeated in games when they've won the turnover battle. 

5. Stingy defense:Despite losing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in the offseason, Atlanta's offense is still one of the best in the league. The unit ranks fifth in total offense, second in yards per play (6.2), fifth in yards per pass (7.9) and fourth in yards per rush (4.8) in the NFL. Although, the Falcons have yet to square off with a defense as stingy as the one they'll see this weekend.

At the midway point, Carolina ranks second in total defense and fifth in yards per play and points per game allowed.

"Our crew on the offensive side of the ball helps for sure," said quarterback Matt Ryan when asked about Carolina's blitz. "We've got a lot of good players at different positions which puts stress on a defense. We're able to get the ball out quickly to some of those guys. We've got good playmakers in space, and that's something defenses have to account for."


View the top photos from Panthers vs. Falcons by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.

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