What we learned from the Panthers’ win over the Falcons on Thursday night

FULL BOX RESULTS

  1. The Panthers made their offensive intentions clear early on. The Falcons went into play defensively in 31st place against the pass. So what did the panthers do? They let the ball run in 17 of their first 23 offensive games. Carolina averaged 105.3 rush yards per game, but had 128 at half and finished with 232 on the floor. Is it weird that they swapped Christian McCaffrey and then declared, “We’re a running team?” Why yes! But with Steve Wilks on QB3, now with PJ Walker – and Wilks hanging on to him after he could have easily switched on Monday – it’s clear the caretaker coach knows he can lead teams with D’Onta Foreman (31 carries!) and his friends, occasionally throw in a Laviska Shenault carry and a walker-keeper and shorten games. If he wants to win games, that’s the formula. On Thursday evening it worked quite well.
  2. The Falcons’ offensive identity is unknown at this time. Atlanta entered the game only second to the Chicago Bears in rush attempts. Running the ball is the Falcons’ (temporary) identity, and it’s been pretty effective this season. Yes, there’s a fanfare for Kyle Pitts and Drake London to get more on the ball – and we’re all for it. But after running the ball 37 times (on just 30 pass dropbacks) in the last encounter against the Panthers 11 days ago, the Falcons started throwing the ball early. Especially not when it rains. No, it wasn’t unbalanced offensively — a 50-50 split, not counting penalties, on the first two drives. Then Arthur Smith overcompensated on the third drive with three straight runs saved against his own end zone. Who doesn’t love a handover on the third and fourth from your own 9-yard line? It was just an odd offensive night early for the Falcons, who fell into a 10-0 hole and couldn’t dig their way out.
  3. At some point, the Falcons will have to have a Marcus Mariota argument. It would be unfair to completely throw Mariota under the bus as he has had some good moments this season – starting with the 49ers game and most of the second half and overtime in the first clash against the Panthers. But he really hasn’t been great for most of the season, being a drag in Week 9 and struggling on Thursday night. And it wasn’t just fighting — it was making rookie mistakes: throwing all over its body, taking terrible sacks instead of throwing them away, tumbling a wide-open Pitts (who’s 6ft 6 tall), throwing from its back outward looks, etc. Carolina dropped at least two potential interceptions in the game drop. The Falcons had a few spots where they could theoretically have given Desmond Ridder a chance. Do we see a Kellen Moon type situation here? Or doesn’t Smith trust his offensive line to stand up to the rookie? Does he still think his team is a contender? Any other factor? We would like to know. The longer Ridder doesn’t play this season, the more we wonder if Smith wouldn’t prefer a different starting QB next year.
  4. Ikem Ekwonu could be a gem for Carolina. Quite quietly, Ekwonu put together a nice rookie season in what was generally a pretty memorable season for the Panthers. But if what we’ve seen from Ekwonu in the last few games continues, they will have eliminated the all-important left tackle position for years to come. There were signs earlier this season that he had some work to do and, to be fair, there were a few rookie moments on Thursday night too – most notably back-to-back penalties when the Panthers were assisted, plus two more flags that we cannot overlook. These need to be cleaned up so that he can take the next step. But his highlights show what kind of player the Panthers could have. Ekwonu has come a long way as a pass protector and is exactly the nasty run blocker he was promoted to be out of school and has been a leader in that department all game. We think General Manager Scott Fitterer and his staff could have a really nice player if Ekwonu cleans up his mistakes and peaks in the next few seasons.
  5. Is PJ Walker the guy? When Wilks came out Monday morning and stated that Walker would be his starting quarterback, it came as a slight surprise to some. After all, he had a brutal first-half performance against the Bengals last Sunday (two picks, three finishes) before being benched and vastly outplayed by Baker Mayfield. Even when Mayfield’s damage came in the garbage time, no one would have been shocked if Wilks had returned to Mayfield. But Wilks has been fighting very well against the wind, seemingly backed by his former boss Matt Rhule. Several of Rhule’s assistants are now gone. The offensive identity has changed. And now Wilks seems to like what he has with Walker. In his view, there is an easier way to commit the type of crime (see point #1) he seems inclined to. Of course, there’s the question of what’s next for Mayfield and Sam Darnold, but it’s not like Walker should be starting next year. But could he stay as a good replacement for a young QB? Absolutely. So there is an idea behind it, even if it involves a risk: Wilk’s return as a coach is not guaranteed.

Next-gen stats of the game: He hit a top speed of 20.29 mph on Laviska Shenault’s 41-meter TD dash, the fastest speed of his ball carrier career. He was expected to gain just 18 yards on the game, which had a TD probability of just 6.0%.

NFL Research: The Panthers converted a season-high six thirds on 15 attempts.

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