Poor starts on defense have left the Carolina Panthers in an early hole in the NFC South.
Each team is placing an emphasis on a successful opening series when the teams meet today.
Quarterback Matt Ryan’s accurate passing is a big reason the Falcons (3-0) are the only NFL team to score touchdowns on opening possessions of the first three games.
The Panthers (1-2) have been equally consistent in their slow starts on defense. Carolina has allowed opposing teams to score on the first possession of all three games.
“We have to come out with better intensity and understand the situation and know that we need to go out and set the tone early and not try to wait until the second series,” said Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis. “We have to go out and jump on these guys and not try to do too much.”
Fast starts have always been an emphasis for Falcons coach Mike Smith. Atlanta is 37-9 in five seasons under Smith when scoring first.
Ryan was viewed as a rising star in his first four seasons. Now he is being mentioned among the league’s top passers as he has flourished in first-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s system.
The Falcons no longer are a run-first team. Ryan has emerged as the NFL leader in passer rating and completion percentage and he’s tied with Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger for the league lead with eight touchdown passes.
Ryan said he’s just having fun.
“I think obviously winning is what it’s all about, and we’ve done a good job of that so far,” Ryan said. “It’s a fun game. It’s fun to play. We’ve got great teammates, we have good camaraderie and it’s a fun team to be a part of.”
Receiver Roddy White says aggressive play-calling is keeping the Falcons out of third-down situations.
“Dirk always says that if you stay out of third downs, then you don’t have to complete them,” White said. “Just staying ahead of the chains. I think we’re doing a good job of play-calling on first and second down, and Dirk’s doing a heck of a job just being aggressive, getting us chunks down the field. I think every time we get chunks down the field and get some explosives on those drives, we’re going down and scoring points.”
The Panthers can’t blame all their troubles on early defensive lapses.
Second-year quarterback Cam Newton completed only 16 of 30 passes with three interceptions and no touchdowns in last week’s 36-7 home loss to the Giants.
“It’s a loss,” Newton said this week. “I don’t like losing and hopefully we can come back and I can do my part Sunday.”
Veteran receiver Steve Smith said he didn’t like seeing Newton sulking on the bench at the end of the game.
Smith’s comments triggered questions during the week about the relationship between the two.