It’s Carolina week, which has been made even more interesting by how the three-time defending NFC South champion Panthers have stumbled out of the starting blocks.
The league’s reigning most valuable player, Cam Newton of Westlake High, will bring a 1-2 record to the Georgia Dome to face the Falcons (2-1) on Sunday.
The Panthers dropped their opener to Denver, 21-20, when they missed a potential game-winning field goal. After pummeling San Francisco, 46-27, were manhandled by Minnesota last week, 22-10. The Vikings blitzed the Panthers into submission. Newton was sacked eight times and tossed three interceptions.
Despite those numbers, the Falcons know that their defense, which has given up 31, 28 and 32 points, must improve dramatically in order deal with the Panthers.
“We’ve got lots of work to do in a lot of spots,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said Tuesday. “So we are just getting started. We are only in our (fourth) game of this year and we’ve a lot of areas to improve, specifically on defense in a few spots and that’s where our focus will be.”
In a carryover from last year, the Falcons continue to struggle with covering tight ends. New Orleans’ Coby Fleener caught seven passes for 107 yards and a touchdown in Monday night’s 45-32 Falcons win. An opposing tight end has scored a touchdown in each game this season.
The Panthers have Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, who leads the team with 18 catches for 259 yards and a touchdown.
Quinn was impressed with rookie middle linebacker Deion Jones, who had a 90-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Saints, and nickel back Brian Poole, who tipped the ball to Jones.
“He’s a guy that’s going to keep growing and keep learning on the job,” Quinn said. “I’ve been very pleased with his development. (Linebackers coach Jeff) Ulbrich and the other linebackers have done a very good job of bringing him along. He has to make the calls. He has the voice out there. That’s not an easy job.”
Quinn believes the rookies are showing the veterans they can make plays.
“That boy has some jets,” linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said of Jones. “It was nice to see him running down the sideline. If we all play ball like that, we’ll be alright. But ultimately we gave up too much. We know it. We’ll get back in there and we’ll fix it.”
In addition to the interception, Jones had nine tackles. Poole had six tackles to go with his pass breakup.
“We have a lot to work on, but we brought a lot of energy,” Jones said. “We just have to keep pounding on the details.”
The Falcons had two sacks and four quarterback hits against the Saints. Defensive end Vic Beasley had five forced quarterback pressures on 27 pass rushing attempts and defensive end Dwight Freeney had four total pressures.
“I thought it was a step forward,” Quinn said of the pass rush. “We had some hits, which was important. We got him (Drew Brees) down twice, but the hits were there.”
The Falcons, who blitzed more against the Saints, have three sacks for the season.
“I said early on, this was going to be a work in progress and we’re not there, where we are going to be,” Quinn said. “It was good to see Dwight come alive. I thought (Adrian) Clayborn had some good rushes as well. Beasley as well. When it turns into a passing game, we can kind of play it like we want to. We’re not there yet for sure, but we’re improving.”
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