Panthers’ Matt Rhule on the Falcons: ‘They play with an aggressiveness’

FLOWERY BRANCH -- In a battle for second place in the NFC South, the Falcons (5-7) are set to play the Panthers (5-7) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

The Panthers won the previous meeting 19-13 on Oct. 31 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But since that game, the Panthers have re-signed Cam Newton to play quarterback and fired offensive coordinator Joe Brady on Sunday.

Here’s what Panthers coach Matt Rhule had to say to Charlotte media on Wednesday:

On what needs to be seen from the players and staff over the next five weeks: “I’m not thinking about any of that, to be honest with you. I’m thinking about this week. When our guys have played well, we’ve been a good team. I’m not looking at like next week or the week after. To be quite honest, that’s one of things I’ve tried to instill in the guys. I think we’re getting closer to it. Just completely focused on this week and Atlanta. What I want to see from this week is a team that’s focused. Thought we had a great practice just now. We had a really nice practice on Monday, good meetings. We’re down some guys, we have some guys injured. Some guys have to step up. I just want you guys to go out there, coaching staff coach their best, players play their best, and play our best game this Sunday.”

On the status of John Miller and Michael Jordan: “I think John like last week will probably be out. There’s a small possibility for Michael maybe.”

On who would be available along the offensive line: “We’d have Brady (Christensen) up. Deonte Brown is back. Dennis Daley. Cam Irving’s returning into play. Austen Pleasants, we elevated last week. It’d be some mixture of those guys, but pretty good chance that the three of the starters that played against Atlanta the last time won’t play.”

On Atlanta’s offense: “Cordarrelle Patterson is one of my favorite players to watch in the National Football League. I loved him as a kick returner. Excellent tailback, dynamic receiver, and brings a lot of obviously difficulties to the defense because he can do all three things. They can be in a multitude of different personnel groupings. Kyle Pitts is another guy. He’s a tight end, he’s a receiver. (Olamide) Zaccheaus, (Russell) Gage, they have a lot of other guys who can make plays. Mike Davis is a guy we have a lot of familiarity with. Then they have Matt Ryan. This league goes as the quarterback goes and he’s one of the premier quarterbacks in the league. I think for us, they have an excellent wide-zone running game. That’s something at times that has given us trouble. We have to play really well up front to stop the run, whether it be Mike or Cordarrelle. Take away the play-action passing game, which they’re excellent at. They do a great job of getting guys open. Those are the two areas I think that we’re seeing from them that they’re doing at a high level. They really mix their run and play action. There’s not a lot of tells. They do an excellent job.”

Cam Newton’s understanding of the offense following the bye week: “Improved. We just have to have a plan that Cam feels comfortable with. He has to just go out and play well.

On Cam Irving’s availability this week: “Yeah, I think there’s a chance. We have to go through the practices, but he practiced out there today and look good. I think there’s chance Cam could be back.”

On coach Jeff Nixon as a play caller: “I don’t know how to describe play callers. I mean he’s going to play to the guys’ strengths. He’s disciplined. He’s not emotional. It’s one of the things I like best about Jeff is that he’s even keel. He doesn’t get too high or too low. The biggest thing that I want to see from him, in addition to the staff, is our ability to adjust when people do something different. I think coming out of the half in the third quarter we’ve only scored 18 points in the whole year. Another seven on a punt block. I’d like to see us be a team that adjusts as the game goes on and reacts to how people are playing us because of the weapons that we have. Obviously, Christian being down because of DJ, his success, Christian’s success, Robby, different quarterbacks, people come into the game, and they try to take away different things. To me, it’s never really quite as much play calling as it is adjusting to what they’re doing. Probing and finding the things that work. I think that Jeff is very even keel. He’s about the right things, technique, detail. I do think he and the offensive staff will do a good job of reacting to, hey this is what I think that they’re going to do. Then they get in the game and coach Pees might do something different and we have to adjust to that. That’s something I know that Jeff can do.”

On Atlanta’s defense: “To me, it all starts with Grady Jarrett. He’s one of the best players in the National Football League. Complete and total dominance at the three-technique position. Obviously, Fowler’s back for them. Basically, their whole front I like, they play with an aggressiveness. We faced him the first time, they were a cover-two base team. Mixed in a little bit of one-high. They’re playing more man now, they’re pressuring. They drafted Terrell last year early in the draft, so they’re trusting those guys to play. Aggressive front, linebackers who can run and that can cover. A lot of different looks, man and zone. They’ve evolved since we played in the first time. It’ll be a challenge for Jeff, the staff, for Cam, for the offense to see, hey here’s how they’re going to play us and make sure that we’re in the right place.”

On the earliest of memories with coach Jeff Nixon: “Yeah, I knew Jeff, obviously, in high school and in college. I didn’t really see him for probably, I guess, 10 or 12 years, as he kind of went off to be a pro coach and I went off to be a college coach. One of my first memories is I think Jeff could do to 225 like 20 something times when we were like in 10th or 11th grade when I moved there. I certainly could not. He was a great football player. He’s even better person, great family. He’s a tremendous father. His son is a football player at Nebraska. He’s got two great daughters, twins. A younger daughter, Jasmine, who’s an all-state soccer player. Wife, Laura, is awesome. I knew Jeff a long time, and it was a really good thing to get him to leave the NFL and come to us at Baylor. He was part of that turnaround at Baylor, and he came here with me. I just have a lot of trust in his work ethic. He’ll put a lot of time into it. More importantly, I know how much he cares about players. A large part of this that people don’t see is the players have to know how much you care about them and you want them to be successful in order for them to go lay it on the line at the level that you’re asking them to do. This is a hard, hard thing physically. I know Jeff has that care for players.”

On creating Jeff Nixon’s high school highlight tapes: “Jeff was like an all-state. He was on those lists, the lists that I didn’t make. As he was getting recruited back before all those things, I was digital enough that I could hook up two VCRs and put a soundtrack to it and make his highlight film for him. Pete Rock and CL Smooth was the music at the time. It was Das EFX, so I had a little something. Yeah, I made his highlight tapes for him. He went off the West Virginia as a scholarship player then eventually transferred back to Penn State.”

On his familiarity with coach Jeff Nixon: “I told Jeff when I came here, he wasn’t going to be the OC. I was going to ask him to come and be the senior offensive assistant. To me, I have tremendous friends but when I walk in this building, it’s all about the Carolina Panthers and what’s right for the Panthers. Familiarity with people, like when Ron left here and went to Washington, he took a lot of people he had familiarity with. It just lets you know what people are going to be like in good times and bad times. Like in difficult times. You see what people are like after you have a big win, you see what people like after you lose two in a row. That eliminates a lot more people than it adds in. When you see guys like Fris Jackson or Phil Snow or Jeff Nixon, when things are down and everyone’s doubting you, you see them just showing up and continue to work. You’re like, okay I believe in that person. At the end of the day, I made this decision. I could have made Fris, Sean, or all those guys. At the end of the day, Jeff is the one guy who has coordinating experience calling plays on the staff. That just to me seemed like a natural fit, because everyone thinks they can call plays until you have 11 guys looking at you like what’s the next play. I don’t know they’re going to zero blitz me or play cover two. You have to stand up and make a call. Everyone afterwards can say that was a good call or bad call. It’s really hard to make the call. Jeff’s done that. He’s done it through good moments and bad moments. To me, that was a place of starting. I like the way he’s attacked us so far. Again, I’ll say it, people won’t pay as much attention to it, but he’s certainly not doing the whole game plan. Just like Joe didn’t. Just like no OC did. Pat is coming up with runs. Ang is coming up with these plays. Sean is coming up with third downs. Fris is coming up with first and second down passes, and we’re all getting together and, hey what’s good, what’s not good. That’s just the way Phil does it. I think it’s a really good collective effort. I’ll say this just because I like these guys, we have some really good young coaches. You know, Matt Lombardi, Tony Soprano, Alonzo Escalante, Garrett McGuire, Grant Udinski, those guys. Down a coach, now they’ve stepped up and they’ve done a really nice job.”

On what the team was able to do against Atlanta the first time to run the ball effectively: “We ran a lot of no huddle. At the end of the day, I just think our backs ran hard. Paradis did a nice job. Michael Jordan played a really good game that game. Trent Scott, that was I think his first start. Trent played a good game that game. I thought those guys did nice jobs. Sam extended some third downs, let us stay on the field. I thought the backs ran hard that game. Chuba ran hard. Ameer was a little bit of a sparkplug in that game for us. Then the defense played well and allowed us to just continue to run the ball. I mean it was 10-6 for a lot of the game, they had the lead. It wasn’t like we just got a head start. Thought it was a team type win. Obviously, we took the ball away twice which was important.”

On the bye week refreshing the team: “I think their bodies are way better. I mean, I never want to make excuses, but they’re certainly beat up. I mean, 17 games first time in NFL history, right? It’s hard, right? It’s hard to begin with, we have a very, very young team. Jeremy Chinn and Taylor Moton have played three more games worth of snaps than most guys on our team. I said Chinn, how do you feel? He was like, I feel a lot better than I did last year. That rookie year really takes a toll on people. I think the time off has been good for their bodies. Obviously, get a little time away, a chance to regroup. You kind of come back and you can refocus a little bit. At the same time, I know they probably would have loved to play the next day after the Miami game. I do think you can see guys like Shaq, Shaq has played through a ton of things this year. Shaq Thompson’s the ultimate Carolina Panther in my mind. He’s got a little bit more kick in his step right now because he’s had a chance to take a bye and get his legs back underneath him.”

On having an officiating crew at practice today: “Reaction to the penalties. We tried to get it a couple of weeks ago, there’s no NFL officials, but they coordinated with us to get some ACC officials here. Sometimes you throw things at problems, right? Just to show, hey this is what’s here. What’s crazy about our penalties, I’ll share it with you guys, the last 54 drives we’ve started with 10 penalties. Our penalties are actually happening on the first play drives. When you have those things, what is it? Is it a lack of discipline? Yes, at times it is don’t get me wrong. It’s also sometimes you’re trying so hard to win because you care about the team that you’re just doing a little too much and not technique. I think for our guys, hearing that was like, wow we are really hurting ourselves at times. You try to arm guys with information. You eliminate guys. Let’s be quite honest, you play someone else if someone’s just a serial penalty guy. Bring officials in, watch tape, point it out. We’re just trying to attack it in a multitude of ways. Then at the same time, continuing to coach technique. Holds don’t happen because a guy doesn’t care. Holds happen because a guy is trying to make his block and his hands get a little bit outside. Sometimes it can be a little arbitrary because holds happen a lot of different plays. Those things are hurting us. We brought officials out just to get their eyes on it. We did it all camp. We had very few penalties in camp. We had very few penalties early in the year. As the year has gone on we’ve gotten more penalties. Didn’t have many penalties today, I think we had one false start. Hopefully it carries over.”

On sitting players who commit multiple penalties: “There’s one guy who has a couple of them. I think when you have two guys of equal you can rotate one over the other. We’ve sat some guys at times, but when they’re up on the offensive line we don’t have a tremendous amount of offensive lineman right now with all the injuries. We just got to keep coaching the guys that are out there. My job is to coach the guys. Yeah, if I have the luxury of, hey it’s this guy or this guy, I can move a guy. Kind of like on the D-line, we have a lot of bodies. Most of our penalties are honestly coming from the offensive line. We’re just getting guys ready every week. Obviously, losing a couple guys this week was really tough.”

On whether Brady Christensen is a better fit at guard rather than tackle: “Cam has played good at left tackle; except he struggled a little bit in the Cowboys game. When Cam has played, he’s played well enough for us to win. Brady’s more of a guard body. He’s played tackle at times, but his future is probably more as a guard-center type. He’s got athleticism and flexibility to go out there, but not quite the size and length of the premier left tackles. When we drafted him, we thought he’d be a really good guard in time and a good tackle. That’s what he’s been, he’s been a utility guy. I tell Brady all the time, hang in there I promise you’re going to be a good player. He’s just playing so many different positions because he’s not a starter. Same thing happens to Dennis. They practice all week at right guard and the guy goes down, all sudden their playing the whole game left tackle. That’s difficult but it’s where we are right now. They have to adapt to it. I just think for us, Brady can play guard. Cam would not be able to go inside and play guard. Dennis has been playing tackle. Dennis at least has experienced at guard. If Cam is back, Dennis will go inside, Brady will go inside. Those would be the positions that guys have the most time at.”

On if PJ Walker will play or if it will be exclusively Cam: “We have a plan for PJ. Whether we get to it or not, it’ll depend on how the game goes. But we have some lays that are kind of PJ plays, that he has the most things that we’d like to do that Cam hasn’t had a lot of time. Obviously, PJ has a lot more time on task in the offense, so we have that as a possibility. Then we get in the game and see how it goes. If it’s like Washington where Cam takes us right down the field, then we might stick with him or longer. Might mix it up. We haven’t even watched the practice tape from today, to be quite honest with you, to see how things looked. I think that’s the thought process for us. Any good player that we have, let’s use him to go win these games. Atlanta’s going to be a tremendous challenge. They’re a really good team so we’re going to have to use everybody. If PJ can help us win then we’ll use him.”

On the cornerback rotation and Stephon Gilmore’s snap count: “I mean, Stephon played like 47 snaps last game. I don’t know how many more than that he’ll get to. I think that’s a number you guys might’ve counted; it might be 40-something. I asked today, making sure we have the right numbers and they had him at 47. I don’t know if Stephon will be a 70-play guy, but I think in that 40-55 play range is probably right for him. Rashaan Melvin’s a guy that broke his hand, he’s back now. I like when Rashaan plays a lot. AJ’s played a lot of football. CJ’s been coming on. I think CJ’s playing really good football for us. Keith started for us. So, part of it for us is we have so many four-corner packages on third down and all that, so those guys have a tendency to get reps anyways. But I think Stephon will probably be in that range. He’ll play 40-55 and see how he feels.”

On the arm length for offensive lineman in guards vs. tackles: “When you’re playing guard, the guy’s so close to you, so it’s really about - you still wanting to be able to have hand dominance and hand control and strike. It’s not really about getting my hands and keeping him off me. If anything, I don’t really want a lot of separation at the guard position. I want to get my hands on guys. That’s why we want big, barrel-chested, strong, powerful men with arms - we want length at every position. But on the inside, it’s such close quarters, quickness, power, balance, all those things can compensate. Brady does not have long arms - he has good arms. As I get out to the tackle positions, the premier left and right tackles have 34, 35, 36 inch arms - guys like Taylor Moton - because there’s so much more distance and if I wait until the guy is right up on top of me while he’s running full speed with a seven-yard head start and meets me at the junction point, and I don’t have long arms and can’t keep him off me, now he can run me over. Then I try to set because I don’t have long arms, I try to punch him and all a sudden he swims me. So having guys like Taylor Moton, having the premier left tackles in the league with the long, long, long arms, they’re able to play with balance and still keep guys off their body. So, guards, centers, can be more powerful inside, because they have closer quarters. As they get out, the speed rushers get wide and come hit you running a 4.5, you need to have arm length to keep them off of you. So, it really comes down to pass pro, not really run blocking.”

The Bow Tie Chronicles

For more content about The Atlanta Falcons

Follow me on Twitter @DOrlandoAJC

On Facebook at Atlanta Falcons News Now

Atlanta Falcons coverage on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Falcons’ 2021 schedule features trip to London, January trip to Buffalo

Atlanta Falcons schedule and scores

Eagles 32, Falcons 6

Buccaneers 48, Falcons 25

Falcons 17, Giants 14

Washington 34, Falcons 30

Falcons 27, Jets 20

Bye Week

Falcons 30, Dolphins 28

Panthers 19, Falcons 13

Falcons 27, Saints 25

Cowboys 43, Falcons 3

Patriots 25, Falcons 0

Falcons 21, Jaguars 14

Buccaneers 30, Falcons 17

Final five games

Falcons at Carolina, 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 12

Falcons at San Francisco, 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 19

Detroit Lions at Falcons, 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 26

Falcons at Buffalo Bills, 1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 2

New Orleans Saints at Falcons, 1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 9

About the Author

Editors' Picks