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Week 17 Game Recap: Carolina Panthers 10, Atlanta Falcons 22


What you need to know

Carolina Panthers

In what could be described as an ugly performance, Cam Newton consistently fired high and wide and couldn't establish a scintilla of momentum for the offense. Newton's footwork appeared to be a major issue once more, with several passes going several inches above the intended receiver. The receiving corps didn't give Newton much help, at the same time; Atlanta locked down the Carolina receivers with solid man to man coverage. The offense was often in third-and-long situations and the ground game seemed to be de-emphasised without Jonathan Stewart, who was inactive. Greg Olsen and Newton seemed to be completely out of sync, and even Christian McCaffrey made uncharacteristic errors. A forgettable game for an undermanned Carolina offense, whose only saving grace may have come from a decent offensive line display.

Atlanta Falcons

Left guard Andy Levitre returned from injury after missing three games, but aggravated the same triceps injury during the first drive and had to leave. Atlanta’s early success came on a variety of rub routes to drive the field, finishing the series with a 19-yard catch and run from Devonta Freeman. Taylor Grabriel injured his hamstring covering Atlanta’s punt at the end of its second drive, which led to more usage for Justin Hardy. While Atlanta’s defense didn’t allow a completion to Carolina until halfway through the second quarter, Atlanta’s offense stalled on four consecutive drives during this span. Cam Newton responded with a 7-for-7 performance on a 16-play scoring drive at the end of the half to tie the game. Atlanta had difficulty running the ball because it lacked patience using Freeman up the middle and resorted to multiple failed runs by Tevin Coleman on the edges. The Falcons also had seven penalties in the first two and a half quarters, including four from the special teams units that nullified two long punt returns. Atlanta later had three consecutive red zone opportunities that ended with field goals within a five-minute period at the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth. These field goals put Atlanta ahead in the second half, but Atlanta had trouble running the ball and protecting Ryan, who had to scramble and throw for nearly every yard he earned in the second half.

Carolina Panthers

QB Cam Newton, 61 offensive snaps, Pass: 14 - 34 - 180 - 1 TD / 3 INT, Rush: 11 - 59 - 0
Cam Newton played one of the poorer games of his career in his hometown, consistently leaving receivers out to dry with his errant passes. His inaccuracy was apparent early on; even from a clean pocket, he was calibrating his targets a few inches too high. Newton's lazy footwork - not stepping into the throw with his front foot - seemed to be the culprit, with the strong-armed passer relying too much on that asset. The only way the Panthers could move the ball early was with Newton's legs. Atlanta continued to shut down the passing attack with strong man to man coverage. This led to repeated third-and-long situations, which the undermanned receiving corps and Newton simply could not overcome. Even Greg Olsen couldn't get on the same page as his quarterback; the two seemed to be out of sync on several key throws. A passing touchdown after a passionate sideline rallying cry ignited some life into the offense, as Newton fired a bullet pass on a slant to Devin Funchess in the end zone. The inside handoff fake was executed to perfection, giving Newton an open throwing window. Newton seemed to lose confidence as the game went on, and tossed three interceptions, the most unforgivable of which came on a routine pass down the middle. It appeared he and the intended receiver, Brenton Bersin, were not on the same page at all, and it was an easy pick for the defender. The second came on a high target to Olsen, who made an attempt to bring the ball in one-handed, but saw it bounce off his paws and into an Atlanta defender's hands. The final nail in the coffin came with less than 30 seconds remaining, a hopeful pass to the front left pylon intended for Funchess. It was an ugly performance from Newton, who has a penchant for producing these games from time to time.

RB Christian McCaffrey, 52 offensive snaps, Rush: 6 - 14 - 0, Rec: 5 - 40 - 0 (8 targets)
The Christian McCaffrey Show came to a shuddering halt against the Falcons, as the offense struggled to establish anything. McCaffrey got into a rhythm early with some inside runs, but the Panthers moved away from the ground game early on and he got few opportunities as a runner as the game wore on. As a receiver, it wasn't his best day; he allowed a simple catch in the flat to get away from him, fumbling it out of bounds uncharacteristically. A clearly irate McCaffrey showed some life towards the end of the game, but mostly he was the recipient of dump-offs with the Falcons defending the lead.

RB Cameron Artis-Payne, 12 offensive snaps, Rush: 5 - 16 - 0
The surprise news that Jonathan Stewart would be inactive with a back problem meant more snaps for the scat back Cameron Artis-Payne. It proved to be a wholly forgettable occasion, as Artis-Payne took his eyes off the ball on a toss play, fumbling the ball. Fortunately he was able to dive on top of it, but he committed a similar error in the second half. On what appeared to be a routine handoff, Artis-Payne did not secure the ball with two hands at the mesh point. The ball bounced off his elbow and again the Panthers were lucky to recover.

WR Devin Funchess, 53 offensive snaps, Rec: 2 - 48 - 1 (6 targets)
The Falcons defensive backs did an excellent job blanketing the Panthers receivers, with Devin Funchess garnering special attention from Desmond Trufant. Cam Newton didn't see the field clearly and was often high, wide and not-so-handsome on his throws. Funchess was targeted several times, but the Falcons keyed on inside-breaking routes and make some nice breakups. Funchess got into the end zone on the only Carolina drive of consequence. Set up a few yards short of the Atlanta goal line, Newton faked an inside handoff before the pulling the ball and firing to Funchess on a slant. The receiver did an excellent job to establish inside technique and made a strong catch with his hands despite competition from the defensive back. Funchess would later haul in a beautiful over-the-shoulder teardrop pass from Newton in a rare glimmer of competence from the offense.

WR Kaelin Clay, 42 offensive snaps, Rush: 1 - -2 - 0, Rec: 1 - 15 - 0 (2 targets)
Kaelin Clay was used primarily as a punt returner and sometimes gadget player on offense. An early attempt at misdirection with an end around didn't fool the Atlanta defense, which flew to the ball all game long. In the passing game, Clay saw a target on a slant, but the pass was too far behind him to corral.

TE Greg Olsen, 57 offensive snaps, Rec: 1 - 10 - 0 (9 targets)
Greg Olsen cut a frustrated figure on the artificial turf in the plush environs of Atlanta's new stadium. Time and again, he was left figuratively scratching his head as Cam Newton fired errant pass after errant pass. One high pass over the middle saw Olsen make a despairing attempt at a catch, only to have the ball tipped and intercepted. The quarterback and tight end were not on the same page on a key third down late in the game; Olsen ran downfield, while Newton seemed to be aiming for a back shoulder completion. Atlanta played a physical game defensively and offered the Carolina receivers very little wiggle room, with Olsen one of the main victims.


Atlanta Falcons

QB Matt Ryan, 72 offensive snaps, Pass: 28 - 45 - 317 - 1 TD / 0 INT, Rush: 3 - 14 - 0
Atlanta got the best of the Panthers defense with routes in the middle of the field and rub routes that created openings on the edges. Ryan showed patience on 3rd and 7 to find Jones on a slant route from a stacked formation. Although the Jones’ route didn’t come open in the first window of his break, Ryan waited in the pocket long enough to deliver the ball from a tight spot to Jones at the right hash in-stride for a completion of 11 yards and a gain of 15. Ryan completed three third-down passes during this drive – the third of these passes was a swing route to Tevin Coleman working outside a slant route that occupied the outside linebacker and brought Atlanta to the Carolina 19. On the next play, Devonta Freeman got open on a rub route working in conjunction with a shallow crossing route for the touchdown. Once left guard Andy Levitre left the game, Ryan dealt with a lot of pressure. During Atlanta’s second series and he was forced to check the ball to his outlet receiver on consecutive passes that led to a punt. Ryan hung a pass up between bracket coverage up the left flat on 3rd and 8 that reached Jones in stride, but the receiver had to work over the safety to make an attempt on the ball and could not pull it down. This led to a second punt in as many series. Atlanta punted a fourth consecutive time in the first half after pressure forced Ryan to climb the pocket on the run and overshoot Sanu on a crossing route. He had to climb or break the pocket against pressure multiple times during this drive, including a scramble up the middle for a first down to the Carolina 11 in the late third quarter. Two plays later, he delivered a beautiful back shoulder throw on a post route to Sanu between two defenders. This was as good of a red zone throw you’d see this year, but the ball hit the ground after contact with the defender. Ryan repeatedly moved around the pocket, finding an open passing lane after avoiding pressure. This put Atlanta into field goal range again, but a dropped pass by Jones and a third-down sack led to a 56-yard field goal to extend the lead to 9.

RB Devonta Freeman, 38 offensive snaps, Rush: 11 - 23 - 0, Rec: 9 - 85 - 1 (11 targets)
The Falcons back scored on a 19-yard catch up the left seam after exiting the middle of the line and broke outside of a shallow crossing route working in front of him in the opposite direction. This earned Freeman a huge crease for the catch and run. Freeman made a man miss in the right flat with a great juke on safety Jairus Byrd to earn seven yards on a 2nd and 10 outlet pass with pressure reaching the pocket. He was pinned in the left flat on the next play with pressure reaching Matt Ryan off the left edge and this forced a punt to end Atlanta’s second drive. He earned 26 yards on a screen as the outside twin receiver to the right side. He split the blocks of Julio Jones and a lineman up the right sideline for the gain. Freeman limped off the field midway through the second quarter on a third-down pass where he blocked a man up the middle of the line and appeared to aggravate the injury as he released on a short route to the flat. Freeman returned to run an angle route for a 10-yard gain late in the half. He broke a tackle in the backfield while working around right tackle for a three-yard gain to begin the third quarter. His best gain of the day came late in the third quarter—a five-yard run up the middle where he spun off contact. He also made a pivotal 2nd and 8 play at midfield to work back outside to create a target for a scrambling Matt Ryan for a gain of 11 on the play. Freeman ran hard and bled the Panthers for every yard he could get, but Atlanta’s line could not reach the Panthers linebackers.

RB Tevin Coleman, 41 offensive snaps, Rush: 11 - 23 - 0, Rec: 2 - 14 - 0 (2 targets)
The Panthers stuffed Coleman for small gains on his first two touches. He earned a first down on a swing pass working outside a slant route that occupied the outside linebacker on Atlanta’s third, third-down of the initial series in the game. Coleman’s reception took Atlanta to its 19 and set up a pass to Devonta Freeman for the touchdown. He took a toss around right end on 2nd and 4 during the second drive for a 5-yard gain around Luke Kuechley. He gained 10 yards on two runs up the middle to begin the fourth drive, including a strong cutback in the crease to the backside of the formation. This was the best pair of plays he had for the rest of the game. After that, Coleman was stuffed again on a run to right end during the first possession of the third quarter. He stumbled to the sideline for three yards after penetration forced him wide on a toss play late in the third quarter. Then he was stuffed again on the next play for a loss of five. He was stuffed up the middle on 2nd and 10 from the Carolina 21 to end the third quarter. Freeman was a bigger factor in the fourth quarter.

WR Mohamed Sanu, 61 offensive snaps, Rush: 1 - 0 - 0, Rec: 7 - 71 - 0 (11 targets)
Ryan found Sanu for a short out-breaking route from the slot on the second third down of the first drive for a short completion. Sanu earned most of the yards after the catch up the left flat for 19 yards to reach the Carolina 35. Sanu worked off a Julio Jones block around the left flat to the sideline to earn six yards during the second drive. He dropped a slant route against tight coverage during the third drive. Ryan led the receiver too far and forced a diving attempt. Sanu failed to earn a yard up the middle on a 3rd and 1 read-option keeper early in the second quarter and earned a third consecutive punt for Atlanta in the half. Atlanta punted a fourth consecutive time in the first half after pressure forced Ryan to climb the pocket on the run and overshoot Sanu on a crossing route. Sanu made a fantastic catch on a back-shoulder post under Kuechly but the ball hit the ground after contact with the defender. He plowed through Darryl Worley at the end of a crossing route late in the third quarter to begin a drive off a Ricardo Allen interception. He took a short pass up the right flat for 16 yards, much of it after the catch and a late hit to the head from Worley tacked another 15 on the play and got Atlanta to the Carolina 21. Sanu took a receiver screen for 9 yards on 3rd and 10 but came inches shy of the marker and led to a third consecutive field goal in the past five minutes. Sanu dropped an out on 3rd and 7 late in the game to force a punt.

WR Julio Jones, 54 offensive snaps, Rec: 5 - 80 - 0 (11 targets)
Jones got open on a slant route from a stacked formation during Atlanta’s first drive. The first window of Jones’ break didn’t come open, but Ryan waited in the pocket long enough to deliver the ball from a tight spot to the right has in stride for a completion of 11 yards and a gain of 15. Jones took a huge hit in the chest on the next play, a play-action slant breaking from the back side of the formation. Jones caught the ball but the safety Mike Adams knocked the ball loose. Jones walked off the field under his own power and returned later in the drive. Atlanta ran double slants with Jones and Mohamed Sanu on the right side of the formation early in the second drive, hitting Jones for a first down. Ryan later hung a pass up between bracket coverage up the left flat on 3rd and 8 that reached Jones in stride, but the receiver had to work over the safety to make an attempt on the ball and could not pull it down. This led to a second punt in as many series. Jones converted a third-down early in the second half on a 12-yard out but slipped while turning up field and aggravated his longstanding ankle injury that has forced him to miss small periods of time almost weekly. He missed two plays and limped back onto the field for a 3rd and 1. Ryan avoided pressure off left end and climbed the pocket and found Julio Jones on a shallow crossing route for a first down. He gained 27 after spinning outside a defender on a short look-in and reached midfield midway through the fourth quarter. He let curl through his hands with a defender wrapping his waist midway through the fourth quarter for his eighth drop of the year.

WR Justin Hardy, 58 offensive snaps, Rec: 2 - 32 - 0 (3 targets)
He earned 17 on a shallow route to a wide-open right flat on a boot-action pass midway through the third quarter to get Atlanta past midfield to the Carolina 27. He ran a pivot route that was well covered and led too far down field on 3rd down in the red zone during the second half. This led to a 30-yard field goal. He got the first down on a 15-yard crossing route after Ryan slid into an open lane in the pocket at the end of the third quarter.

WR Taylor Gabriel, 9 offensive snaps (1 targets)
Gabriel fell to the ground before he could reach the return man while covering Atlanta’s first punt of the game. He pulled up holding his left hamstring. He was taken to the locker room.

TE Austin Hooper, 58 offensive snaps, Rec: 3 - 35 - 0 (3 targets)
He earned 9 yards during a two-minute drill on a catch and run up the right seam with less than 30 seconds in the half to get Atlanta near midfield. Hooper earned over 20 yards up the middle with a catch and run to cross midfield but the Falcons could not clock the ball in time to bring the field goal unit onto the field and the half ended tied at 7.