WEEK 8: Falcons look for third straight win against struggling Panthers

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons will be going for their third straight victory when they host the struggling Carolina Panthers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this weekend.

The Falcons have climbed to 3-3, their first .500 record since Week 2 of the 2019 season. Atlanta hasn’t had a winning mark since the end of the 2017 season, which also was the last time the Falcons made the playoffs.

The Panthers have lost four straight games since a 3-0 start. Quarterback Sam Darnold has come under heavy criticism for his play, leading to reports the Panthers were interested in trading for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Slow it down: Darnold’s mechanics a focus after benching

The Carolina Panthers are tinkering with Sam Darnold’s mechanics in hopes of salvaging whatever is left of the quarterback’s confidence.

Panthers coach Matt Rhule has been working closely with Darnold this week on his footwork, particularly slowing down the QB’s backpedal. Darnold’s drops have gotten quicker and quicker as the season has progressed, which Rhule believes has thrown off the timing with his receivers.

To help illustrate, Rhule showed Darnold game film from Carolina’s Week 2 win against the New Orleans Saints when he was more in sync.

“There’s no doubt he can do it — there’s no doubt,” Rhule said. “I just think you’re trying so hard to win, you start trying to do too much, play a little faster, and all of a sudden you look up one day, and you’re a little bit harried, you’re not quite in rhythm.”

The Panthers traded three draft picks for Darnold this offseason in hopes that he’d develop into a franchise quarterback.

But the Panthers have lost four straight games and Darnold has seven interceptions during that span. Rhule finally had enough last Sunday and benched Darnold in the second half of a lopsided 25-3 road loss to the New York Giants.

As Darnold stood on the sideline with his fingers tucked into his shoulder pads up near his throat, it was clear to anyone watching that he had regressed.

Nonetheless, Darnold will start Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.

When he steps on the field he said his goal will be to “slow down” his feet in the pocket.

“Sometimes my feet can be fast in a bad way,” Darnold said. “Sometimes that’s good, but for me, I want everything to be rhythmic and slow. Slower’s not a great term, but a little slower and more in rhythm than what I’ve been doing the last few weeks. Just making sure my timing and rhythm are on point.”

Rhule said Carolina’s coaches teach quarterbacks that feet set the timing and tempo of a pass play, and the eyes follow from there.

“When you go back and watch the great quarterbacks who play for a long time, the Aaron Rodgerses, the Tom Bradys, they have so much experience and they’ve played their way through good times and bad times and they can kind of self-regulate,” Rhule said.

“Sam is working so hard and trying to push ahead to the next week and what’s next and the next practice, and I think taking some time ... to say ‘this is what it looked like when you did it right.’ I’m hoping that will gave him a mental picture of ‘this is what I need to do.’”

The Panthers are 0-4 since Christian McCaffrey went down with a hamstring injury and the 2019 All-Pro running back remains on injured reserve.

Darnold disputed the notion that the loss of McCaffrey has impacted his performance.

“My reads don’t change just because Christian’s not in the game,” Darnold said.

Along with being benched, Darnold has had to deal with incessant reports this week about the Panthers potentially being interested in trading for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson as a replacement. Multiple reports have since said the Panthers have backed off after testing the waters before the league’s Nov. 2 trade deadline.

Darnold shrugged off the reports, saying “I’m not worried about it. I’m worried about doing my job every single day. ... That’s all I’m worried about right now.”

The Panthers certainly have reason to worry about Darnold’s confidence.

But Rhule is trying to throw his support behind the fourth-year quarterback, who is 16-29 as an NFL starter.

“I feel really good about Sam,” Rhule said. “Obviously, it wasn’t a great game this past game. I think at the end of the day, when Sam goes back and watches himself, or our whole team goes back and watches himself against the New Orleans Saints, we see exactly what he is and was and can be, and we’ve got to get him back to that spot.”


CAROLINA (3-4) at ATLANTA (3-3)

Sunday, 1 p.m. EDT, Fox

OPENING LINE: Atlanta by 3, according to FanDuel SportsBook.

AGAINST THE SPREAD: Carolina 3-4; Atlanta 3-3.

SERIES RECORD: Falcons lead 33-19.

LAST MEETING: Falcons beat Panthers 25-17 on Oct. 29, 2020, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

LAST WEEK: Panthers lost at Giants 25-3; Falcons won at Dolphins 30-28.

PANTHERS OFFENSE: OVERALL (25), RUSH (20), PASS (26), SCORING (T-22).

PANTHERS DEFENSE: OVERALL (3), RUSH (13), PASS (2), SCORING (T-7).

FALCONS OFFENSE: OVERALL (17), RUSH (27), PASS (10), SCORING (T-19).

FALCONS DEFENSE: OVERALL (18), RUSH (16), PASS (19), SCORING (30).

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL: Panthers minus-5; Falcons minus-3.

FALCONS PLAYER TO WATCH: TE Kyle Pitts Pitts set a franchise record at his position with 163 yards receiving on seven catches in last week’s victory over Dolphins. He has 471 yards through the first six games, which puts him on pace for the best season by a rookie tight end in NFL history. He has thoroughly justified being picked No. 4 overall.

PANTHERS PLAYER TO WATCH: QB Sam Darnold is in a huge slump. He’s thrown seven interceptions in the last four games and his confidence took a hit last week when he was benched in the fourth quarter of Carolina’s ugly loss to the Giants. With reports swirling about Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson, Darnold was set to start against the Falcons. But he could be running out of chances to hang on to his job.

KEY MATCHUP: Atlanta’s passing game vs. Carolina’s secondary. Falcons QB Matt Ryan has thrown for more than 300 yards in back-to-back games, but he’s going against a defense that has allowed just 197.1 yards through the air, ranking second in the NFL.

KEY INJURIES: Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey will miss his fifth straight game with a hamstring injury and RG John Miller is out with a foot injury. However, several Carolina players are slated for a return against their NFC South foes, including LT Cam Erving, LB Shaq Thompson and S Juston Burris. Also, CB Stephon Gilmore might be ready to take the field for the first time for the Panthers since being acquired in a trade with New England. ... Falcons CB A.J. Terrell sustained a concussion against the Dolphins. CB Fabian Moreau (neck) and S Erik Harris (shoulder) had to leave last week’s game, but their injuries do not appear serious. CB Avery Williams hopes to return after missing two games with an ailing hamstring. OT Kaleb McGary is also back after a week on the COVID-19 reserve list.

SERIES NOTES: The Falcons have won six of the last seven meetings between the division rivals. The only Carolina win in that span was a 23-16 victory last season in Atlanta that dropped the Falcons to 0-5, which led to the firing of coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff a few hours later. ... The teams have played three overtime games, with the Falcons winning them all. ... The Falcons hold a 19-7 edge in games played in Atlanta.

STATS AND STUFF: The Panthers have lost four straight games. ... Carolina was 2 of 15 on third-down conversions last week. ... Darnold’s career record as an NFL starter is 16-29. ... RB Chuba Hubbard was held to 28 yards on 12 carries last week by the Giants. .... WR Robby Anderson has four drops in the past two games. ... Carolina’s defense has four sacks in the last four games after making 14 sacks in the first three games. ... Carolina’s offensive line has allowed 24 sacks, second most in the league behind the Bears (26). ... The Falcons have won two straight games to reach .500 for the first time since Week 2 of the 2019 season. ... Atlanta hasn’t had a winning mark since the end of the 2017 season, which was also the last time the Falcons made the playoffs. ... Atlanta’s three wins have come against teams with a combined 4-16 record. ... LB Deion Jones was NFC defensive player of the week after matching his career high with 15 tackles (11 solo), including three tackles behind the line and a sack. He was also targeted eight times in the passing game and limited Dolphins’ receivers to 36 yards and one first down. ... Jones was the first NFC player to have 15 tackles, three tackles for losses and a sack since San Francisco’s Jamie Winborn in 2002. ... K Younghoe Koo is perfect this season: 10 for 10 on field goals and 13 of 13 on extra points. Since arriving in Atlanta midway through the 2019 season, Koo has made 70 of 75 field goal attempts (93.3%).

FANTASY TIP: Pitts is an obvious selection for any fantasy team, but let’s look beyond the Falcons’ star rookie. Panthers WR D.J. Moore had 93 yards receiving and a touchdown in last year’s game at Atlanta. He’s had at least 80 yards receiving in three of his last four games in Atlanta, not to mention a TD in two of his last three visits to the A-T-L.


Panthers lose 5th-round pick Nixon to season-ending injury

The Panthers have placed rookie fifth-round draft choice Daviyon Nixon on injured reserve with a season-ending knee injury on Thursday. The defensive tackle was hurt during practice on Wednesday.

Nixon has played in all seven games this season as a backup and has nine tackles, two quarterback hits and a half sack.

Carolina’s roster stands at 50 players, but the team is expected to get cornerback Stephon Gilmore back from the PUP list this week while defensive backs Juston Burris and Myles Hartsfield are expected to return from injured reserve.

Rookie wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. remains out of practice with a concussion and is expected to miss his second straight game on Sunday when the Panthers visit the Atlanta Falcons.

Starting left tackle Cam Erving practiced full and linebacker Shaq Thompson was limited as he works his way back from a foot injury.

(WATCH BELOW: Boy diagnosed with brain lesions gets surprise trip to Panthers vs. Cowboys game)