CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Matt Ryan is coming to town, which tends to mean trouble for the Carolina Panthers.
The Falcons quarterback has dominated the rival Panthers of late, going 6-1 in his past seven starts while averaging 318 yards passing with 15 touchdown passes and only three interceptions.
Ryan is 14-8 against Carolina.
So, while much of the attention this week has been on Carolina’s porous run defense — they’ve allowed opponents to run for a combined 516 yards and 10 touchdowns in the past three games — defensive coordinator Eric Washington knows the Panthers can’t forget about old No. 2 and his favorite target Julio Jones.
“We know what he’s capable of and they have explosive talent at the wide receiver position,” Washington said of Ryan. “So we need to make sure we do a good job of getting him in third down situations they don’t want to be in. And we have to be really efficient with our pass rush. The ball tends to come out fast on third-and-medium.”
That won’t be easy.
Carolina’s top cornerback James Bradberry is coming back from a groin injury this week, but the team’s second- and third-best cornerbacks Donte Jackson and Ross Cockrell missed the first two days of practice this week with injuries and may not play. That means the Panthers (5-4) could have to lean on young players such as Javien Elliott, Cole Luke and Corn Elder, who was re-signed earlier this week because of injury concerns.
The Falcons (2-7) may not be contending for a playoff spot, but showed last Sunday they still have plenty of life — and firepower — by throttling the Saints 26-9
NEW LOOK AT RUNNING BACK
If Devonta Freeman is held out with a sprained foot, as expected, the Falcons will have a new look at running back. The position was considered to be the team's deepest spot before Ito Smith was placed on injured reserve last week following a concussion and a neck injury.
Brian Hill played well behind Freeman last week and is expected to start. Former Panthers backup Kenjon Barner would be the top backup and Qadree Ollison, who was active for the first time against the Saints, could play a bigger role. Notably, Barner was used in the wildcat formation, filling the role formerly held by Mohamed Sanu before the receiver was traded to New England. There could be more direct snaps for Barner against the Panthers.
NEW KICKER IS A KEEPER
The Falcons may have found their kicker, at least for the remainder of the season, in Younghoe Koo. Koo made four field goals, including a career-long 48-yarder, in last week's win at New Orleans in his Falcons debut. Koo was signed after veteran Matt Bryant's second stint with the team didn't go well and Giorgio Tavecchio couldn’t hold the job.
Koo was the NFC special teams player of the week following his successful debut. He made three of six field-goal attempts with the Chargers in 2017 and kicked for the Atlanta Legends of the short-lived Alliance of American Football earlier this year. Koo, from South Korea, played for Georgia Southern.
The Panthers drafted Greg Little in the second round earlier this year to be their left tackle, but two concussions have limited him to two games and one start this season.
However, Little has now been cleared from the concussion protocol and is expected to start Sunday at left tackle with Dennis Daley sitting bothered by a groin injury. The Panthers have won both games that Little has played this season.
Before last week's game, Atlanta ranked last in the league with only seven sacks. Suddenly the Falcons rediscovered their pass rush with six sacks against the Saints, including 2½ by defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Vic Beasley Jr., who has been unable to duplicate his 2016 production, when he led the NFL with 15½ sacks, added 1½ sacks.
“To me, it was just a good example to show what we're capable of,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “If we apply those things time after time, those are the results that we hope to get.”
MORE OF MOORE
The Panthers are getting more production of late out of second-year wide receiver D.J. Moore, who is coming off back-to-back 100-yard receiving games for the first time in his career. Moore had seven catches for 101 yards against the Titans two weeks ago and followed that up with a nine-catch, 120-yard performance last week against the Packers. Moore is leading the Panthers in receptions (54) and yards receiving (684). The next goal for him is getting into the end zone — he only has one TD catch.