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Five things to watch: Panthers vs. Falcons

Curtis Samuel

It's crunch time. Get ready for game day, and don't forget the chips as the 3-4 Panthers take on the 1-6 Falcons on Thursday Night Football. Here are five things to watch in the matchup.

Mr. Third Down

Wide receiver Curtis Samuel has been one of the league's best players on third down this season. Carolina would like to keep that production going against Atlanta.

Despite missing a game due to injury, Samuel is tied for the league's most third-down receptions with 14. In fact, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has completed a pass to Samuel every time he's targeted him on third down.

Samuel's 11 first-down receptions on third down are tied for the league lead with Packers wide receiver Davante Adams and Chargers wideout Keenan Allen. Samuel's 12 total third-down conversions are the most among wide receivers.

"Whether a team is playing man, playing zone, my job is to make plays," Samuel said. "How I get involved in the offense is getting open, giving the quarterback another outlet. I just try to keep winning and keep the drive going."

In the Week 5 meeting between Atlanta and Carolina, Samuel's 17-yard run on third-and-2 midway through the fourth quarter provided a critical lift on a long drive that salted away much of the game's remaining time.

Carolina will need to get more chain-moving plays from Samuel on Thursday night.

Third-down defense

The Panthers' third-down defense has been one of the league's worst in 2020, best exemplified by last week's performance against New Orleans. The Saints converted 12-of-14 third downs, controlling the ball and the clock throughout Carolina's 27-24 loss. The 85.7 percent conversion rate was the highest allowed by the Panthers in a single game.

"Rush, coverage, everything included, everybody's got to work together to get off the field because we just can't allow 12-of-14," defensive end Brian Burns said. "That's just unacceptable."

Players will often say the key to winning third down is not allowing chunk yardage on first and second down. There's plenty of truth in that statement since it's more difficult for offenses to convert on third-and-long than third-and-short. But the Saints converted third-and-10, third-and-14, and third-and-8 last week, so just increasing the distance doesn't guarantee success.

Wide receiver Julio Jones didn't play in Carolina's Week 5 victory over Atlanta, which means quarterback Matt Ryan will have another third-down weapon against a young Panthers' secondary. The Panthers need to pressure Ryan, making him uncomfortable in the pocket, so he doesn't have time to find an open receiver.

Run game improvement

Though the Panthers scored on all but two possessions last week, they struggled in the run game against New Orleans.

Running back Mike Davis finished with just 12 yards on seven carries, though he did add five receptions for 24 yards.

Davis had a big game against Atlanta a few weeks ago, totaling a career-high 149 yards from scrimmage in the win. Davis rushed 16 times for 89 yards in that game, adding nine receptions for 60 yards with a touchdown.

According to right tackle Taylor Moton, the formula for getting the run game going again is simple.

"I think it comes down to getting a hat on a hat, going to the right guys, driving guys out of holes, opening lanes for the running back," he said. "That's what the run game ultimately comes down to no matter what level: hat on a hat and execution."

Davis has filled in admirably for running back Christian McCaffrey, who has not been activated to the 53-man roster as of Thursday morning. In five starts, Davis has rushed for 283 yards and two touchdowns and caught 29 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns.

Defending the run

Falcons running back Todd Gurley had his best game since the 2018 postseason against the Panthers in Week 5, rushing for 121 yards and a touchdown. That's 25 percent of Gurley's 485-yard rushing total in 2020.

Carolina's defensive front has had issues remaining in its gaps at times this season, and the previous Atlanta game is a clear example. Gurley averaged 8.6 yards per carry in that contest, as the Falcons finished with 166 yards — gaining 6.9 per attempt.

As Burns said this week, Gurley stresses a defense by bouncing to different holes until he finds the right one. But that's precisely why Carolina has to remain gap sound, sticking to their assignments. If defenders do so, Gurley won't have many ways to gash the defense. If they don't, it could be another long day with the defense on the field for much of it.

More explosive scoring plays?

The Panthers have mostly been methodical this season, scoring points with long, methodical possessions. There's nothing wrong with that approach, as long as the team scores touchdowns in the red zone. But that's where Carolina's offense has run into issues.

Carolina went 2-of-2 in red-zone efficiency last week but still ranks No. 27 overall in the category. Only 52 percent (13-of-25) of the Panthers' trips inside the 20 have resulted in touchdowns. That's why even though they're No. 16 in yardage, they're also No. 25 in points scored.

One way to remedy the discrepancy could be adding explosive scoring plays. The Panthers have scored just three touchdowns of over 20 yards this season: wide receiver Robby Anderson's 75-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of Week 1, wide receiver DJ Moore's 74-yard touchdown in the second quarter last week, and Moore's 57-yard touchdown in the second quarter against Atlanta in Week 5.

Of the remaining 13 touchdowns, 11 have come from 7 yards or fewer.

It's not easy for players to get loose and score from long distance. But one way to solve issues in the red zone is not to have them come up in the first place.

Carolina is 21-35 all-time against Atlanta dating all the way back to 1995.

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