Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, channeling his inner Michael Vick, rushed for two touchdowns to power the Falcons to a 31-24 victory over the Panthers on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Falcons needed Ryan’s sixth and seventh career rushing touchdowns and a strong rushing performance from running back Tevin Coleman to earn the victory and improve to 1-1. The Panthers dropped to 1-1 with the loss.
The Falcons were not in the clear until Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s pass for D.J. Moore was incomplete in the end zone as time expired.
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“Just coming off losing so many really good players, we lost three Pro Bowlers,” safety Ricardo Allen said. “Just to get out there and show them that we are willing to fight for them…. We went out there and we a battled.”
Ryan completed 23 of 28 passes for 272 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He finished with a passer rating of 116.1.
Coleman rushed 16 times for 107 yards. Ito Smith had 46 yards rushing on nine carries.
Here are five things we learned from the NFC South contest.
1. Red zone royalty: The Falcons scored touchdowns on all four of their trips inside the Panthers' 20-yard line.
Trailing 10-3, Ryan connected with rookie Calvin Ridley for an 11-yard touchdown pass. Ridley put a wicked move on Carolina cornerback Donte Jackson to get open on the slant route.
On the Falcons’ next possession, Ryan tossed an 8-yard touchdown pass to tight end Austin Hooper as the Falcons built a 17-10 halftime lead.
On the third trip to the red zone, Ryan powered in behind center Alex Mack and right guard Brandon Fusco for a 1-yard rushing touchdown. The score put the Falcons up 24-10.
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It was just the sixth rushing touchdown of Ryan’s career and his first since 2012.
After the Panthers scored to make it 24-17, Ryan went back to his scrambling ways. On third-and-5 from the 8-yard line, Ryan rolled out to his left looking to pass. He pulled the ball down and powered his way into the end zone over safety Mike Adams.
Tight end Austin Hooper leveled Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly on the play.
“So, I felt that someone was below my feet,” Ryan said. “I felt I’d go up and protect the ball as best I could. I guess it was a good decision.”
The red-zone performance was a marked improvement from the season-opening loss to the Eagles when the Falcons were 1 of 5 in the scoring zone.
After ranking 23rd in the league in red-zone scoring last season, the Falcons made that an area of emphasis over the offseason, but not necessarily with Ryan turning into Vick as a running quarterback.
2. Coleman and Smith: The rushing combination of Coleman and Smith worked well for the Falcons, who were without running back Devonta Freeman, who's out with a bruised knee.
He ripped off a big 36-yard gain in the second quarter. The run help set up the Falcons’ first touchdown.
Smith came in and ran the ball well between the tackles. He had a 18-yard gain around left end in the third quarter.
Coleman became the first running back to rush for more than 100 yards against the stout Panthers’ defense in 22 games, which had been the longest streak in the NFL.
“We got the run game going early,” right tackle Ryan Schraeder said. “We stayed on it and wore the guys down. We mixed in the play-action pass, the boot (legs) and I felt like we really opened up our offense and wore those guys down. To put up the points that we did, it feels good.”
3. Secondary shakeup:The Falcons opened with Damontae Kazee playing free safety. Allen played closer to the line of scrimmage at strong safety for the injured Keanu Neal.
After Kazee was ejected for unnecessary roughness, Jordan Richards went in at strong safety and Allen went back to his free safety spot.
“On the sideline, they said as he begin to slide, (Kazee) went down and it was a helmet-to-helmet hit that he could have avoided,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “I actually did not see the play. I have not seen it on replay yet. I sounded like everybody supported the call. We’ve got work to do in that area. (Kazee) is one that is working on it.”
The Falcons played a lot of zone coverage and elected to come up and tackle, while conceding some underneath passes.
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Allen had a shot at a deep interception, but couldn’t haul in the pass.
Richards had a stop on Christian McCaffrey in the middle of the field, but couldn’t get him down.
On a blitz, Newton tossed the ball out to his right and cornerback Desmond Trufant dropped the potential interception.
Trufant did some push-ups to atone for the missed opportunity.
“That’s what we do in practice,” Allen said. “We don’t get very many opportunities to catch the ball, so when we do we have to make it count. You could just tell that he wanted that.”
Allen came up an interception in the fourth quarter and had a nifty 26-yard return.
4. Riley stepped up: Duke Riley made the start for the injured Deion Jones at middle linebacker. He had some help from DeVondre Campbell with getting the defense set.
He had five tackles in the first half to lead the unit.
He wasn’t able to tackle D.J. Moore, who rambled on for a 51-yard touchdown with 2:20 left in the fourth quarter to pull the Panthers within seven points.
Campbell and Riley led the Falcons with nine tackles each.
5. Injury report: Falcons starting left guard Andy Levitre (left elbow) left the game in the second quarter. Wes Schweitzer, who started 18 games at right guard last season, took over.
Backup defensive end Derrick Shelby suffered a groin injury in the second quarter and did not return.
Nickel back Brian Poole, who was having a strong game, left briefly in the third quarter. Blidi Wreh-Wilson came on for a play and nearly had an interception.
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Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC