Here's a look at some key players to watch when the Falcons host the Panthers Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Video by Leo Willingham)

Falcons can’t afford to fall into the 0-2 black hole

The Falcons (0-1) will open NFC South play with a revamped defense after key injuries to Pro Bowlers Keanu Neal and Deion Jones when they host the Carolina Panthers (1-0) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 

The Falcons have won the past three games against the Panthers in Atlanta and want to avoid starting the season 0-2.

Since 2007, 91 teams have started 0-2. Only 10 of them (11 percent) turned it around to make the playoffs. 

Last season, the Saints started 0-2, but rebounded. The ripped off eight consecutive wins on their way to earning the NFC South title at 11-5. Seven other 0-2 teams did not make the playoffs in 2017, and Cleveland finished 0-16. 

The Dolphins in 2016, the Texans and Seahawks in 2015, the Colts in 2014, the 2013 Panthers, the 2008 Vikings and the 2007 Giants are the only others. The 2007 Giants team went on to win the Super Bowl.

The 2008 Chargers made the playoffs as an 8-8 team.

So, 0-2 would not look good for the Falcons, who were a trendy exhibition-season Super Bowl pick. 

Stopping Cam Newton

The Falcons will be without key defenders in safety Keanu Neal and middle linebacker Deion Jones. How will they stop Carolina quarterback Cam Newton?

In his first game with a new offensive coordinator, Newton broke off a few designed runs that had nothing to do with read-pass-options, or the longer-standing read-option. The Cowboys were caught completely unaware as he bootlegged for big yards several times while rushing 13 times for 58 yards and a touchdown. 

“I am expecting that ... ” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of Newton being featured differently as a runner. “When he gets out on the edge, he’s a running back and a big one. So, I anticipate that part of his game because that adds another element to their offense.” 

The Westlake High School graduate is one of the more prolific rushing quarterbacks in NFL history. 

He holds the NFL record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 55, and he ranks third in career rushing yardage from his position. His 4,378 yards trail only Michael Vick (6,109) and Randall Cunningham (4,928). 

And he runs more against the Falcons than just about everybody else. Newton has a career average of 39.8 rushing yards per game over 109 starts. 

Against the Falcons, he’s averaged 51.5. He blew up the Falcons last season in Carolina, rushing nine times for 86 yards and a touchdown in a 20-17 win Nov. 5.

“He can run, and he’s hard to tackle,” said cornerback Desmond Trufant, who probably hopes he won’t encounter the 6-foot-5, 245-pounder. “He’s big. ... We’ve just got to be disciplined, run to him and swarm the ball and wrap him up. Just keep everything in front of us.” 

In seven NFL seasons, he’s thrown for 4,000 or more yards just once, in his NFL Rookie of the Year season of 2011 before people began defending his run game. His career completion percentage of 58.6 is modest. 

There was little evidence of a downfield passing mindset against the Cowboys, when Newton completed 17 of 26 passes for 161 yards and a long completion of 19. 

But the Falcons expect they will try to stretch the field with speedy wide receiver Torrey Smith, who was acquired this offseason.

Sloppy play must stop 

The Falcons must clean up their sloppy play.

The Falcons were called for 15 penalties which were the most in the NFL in Week 1. Pittsburgh had 12 while Cleveland, Jacksonville, Philadelphia and Oakland all committed 11.

The Falcons committed a variety of penalties, but the five procedural penalties were troubling.

The Falcons, who have an officiating crew at all of their practices, figure they can fix their penalty issue quickly.

Last season, Seattle led the league with 148 penalties. The Falcons ranked 20th with 102 penalties, while Carolina had the fewest with 83.

There were four players with two penalties against the Eagles – right tackle Ryan Schraeder, tight end Eric Saubert, linebacker Foye Oluokun and cornerback Desmond Trufant.

Saubert, a backup tight end and second-year player from Drake, played well on special teams last season, but had a wicked face-mask grab against the Eagles.

“As a team, we are trying to play penalty-free football,” Saubert said. “The effort was there, but the technique could have probably been better.”

Trufant was called for defensive holding and defensive pass interference.

“Sometimes it’s just part of the game,” Trufant said. “Sometimes you can’t control it, and some of them you can control it. At the end of the day, we just play hard and not try to put it in their hands.”

Wide receiver Julio Jones talks about how the Falcons' are working to address their touchdown failures from inside the 20-yard line. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter)

Who the heck is Ian Thomas?

The Panthers lost tight end Greg Olsen to a foot injury in the opener. He will be replaced by Ian Thomas, a rookie tight end who played at Indiana.

“I don’t think a lot of people know a lot about him, which I think is fine with us,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “Very athletic. Good hands. Good route-runner. Good blocker. He has a lot to learn. He’s still learning and growing.”

The Falcons know Thomas. They had him in for a pre-draft visit.

“(He’s) somebody that we thought was going to have a bright future at tight end,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “He’s got the speed to extend out and play outside the line, outside the core and make plays. But he has enough strength and grip to him that he could play in-line.”

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is a different quarterback without Olsen, his security blanket in the passing game.

Thomas, who’s 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, caught two passes for four yards in the opener against the Cowboys. He’s from Baltimore and played in junior college before attending Indiana.

He was drafted in the fourth round and will share the spot with Chris Manhertz and Alex Armah. 

“We are very pleased with what we’ve gotten from Ian,” Rivera said. “Ian has done a great job for us.

Riley is the man in the middle 

Duke Riley, a third-round pick (75th overall) in 2017, will take over for Pro Bowl player Deion Jones at middle linebacker.

“I don’t know how you replace the middle linebacker, that’s a tough one,” Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian said on SiriusXM NFL Radio recently. “He’s on a defense that’s based on speed and aggression. That’s tough. I feel badly for them.”

Riley was being groomed to back up Jones.

“I’ve been preparing for this backup (middle linebacker) role the whole offseason,” Riley said. “I actually played the whole (exhibition season) at middle linebacker. My job was to actually know all of the positions when I got here because they didn’t know what they were going to do with me.”

Riley started last season as the weakside linebacker, but lost his spot after missing too many tackles. He suffered a knee injury and then flourished on special teams upon his return. 

He’s set to make his first start in the middle. 

“When I was backing up Deion, I always prepared like I was going to start,” Riley said.

Defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel has a simple message for Riley.

“Just come in and dominate your gap,” Manuel said.

Riley will take over the signal-calling role on the defense, too. 

“What is awesome is that I get to talk to Duke every play,” Manuel said. “A lot of people forget that. … I can talk to him every play and keep him balanced. With disciplined eyes, he’ll be fine.”

Riley, who started six games and played in 12 as a rookie, knows the Panthers will test him. 

“I hope so,” Riley said. “I want them to come after me. Please. I’m ready for what every.”

Falcons' Duke Riley addresses stepping in for injured linebacker Deion Jones. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter)

Three key matchups

Panthers DTs Kawann Short and Dontari Poe vs. Falcons Gs Brandon Fusco and Andy Levitre: A week after the great Fletcher Cox collapsed the middle of the Falcons’ line, they’ll get another stiff test from Short and Poe, who was not re-signed and allowed to leave in free agency after playing a season with the Falcons. Short had two of the Panthers’ six sacks against the Cowboys, and Poe gobbled up blocks on 35 snaps. “Their guys up front are very physical,” Fusco said. “I noticed that right away.”

Panthers Ts Chris Clark and Taylor Moton vs. Falcons DEs Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley: The Panthers had to sign Clark after Daryl Williams was injured in the season opener. Starting left tackle Matt Kalil was placed on injured reserve before the start of the season. Clark, 32, has played in 106 games and made 53 starts during stints with Houston and Denver. Beasley came up without a sack against the Eagles, while McKinley had a sack. The Panthers likely will try to slow the rush with their zone-read package and the threat of quarterback Cam Newton running. 

Panthers MLB Luke Kuechly vs. Falcons RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman: The Panthers swarmed the Cowboys and held running back Ezekiel Elliott to 69 yards rushing in the opener. The Falcons had trouble getting the rushing attack on track against the Eagles. Devonta Freeman had a run of 20 yards, but was held out of practice with a sore knee during the key Wednesday and Thursday practices. Coleman scored on a 9-yard touchdown run against the Eagles. Ito Smith will back up Coleman if Freeman doesn’t play. 

QB Corner with Matt Ryan

Here are three questions with Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan about the Panthers: 

Q: How did Dontari Poe and Kawann Short look in the middle of that defense against Dallas? 

A: “They look good. With Poe being here last year (we know) he’s a talented player. He works hard. Very stout on the inside. Having played against Short for a long time, he’s a good player. He physical. He’s disruptive in the run game. He’s disruptive in the pass game. We certainly have to account for both of those guys on the interior because they are difficult to go against.”

Q: Does it seem like Luke Kuechly just shows up at the football?

A: “Yes, he does. He’s a tackling machine. Every week, double-digit tackles. He does a great job within their scheme of getting them set and into the right stuff, in and out of blitzes. Getting them to the right checks. He does a great job. He’s a ball-hawk.”

Q: What’s your outfit for Sunday? Will you try to match Cam Newton?

A: “I’m probably a little more conservative, I guess.” 

About the Panthers 

The Panthers (1-0) opened the season with a 16-8 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. 

This will be the 47th regular-season meeting with the Panthers. The Falcons lead the series, 28-18. 

The two teams split last season with Carolina winning 20-17 at home on Nov. 5 and the Falcons winning 22-10 on Dec. 31 at home.  

AJC Correspondent Matt Winkeljohn contributed to this article. 

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