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What We Learned from Panthers’ win over Falcons on Thursday night

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  1. Panthers made their offensive intentions clear early on. The Falcons entered the game ranked 31st against the pass defensively. So what did the Panthers do? They ran the ball on 17 of their first 23 offensive plays. Carolina was averaging 105.3 rush yards per game coming in, but it had 128 by the half and finished with 232 on the ground. Is it strange that they traded Christian McCaffrey and then declared, “We are a running team!” Why, yes! But with Steve Wilks on QB3 now with P.J. Walker — and Wilks sticking with him after he easily could have made a switch on Monday — it’s clear the interim coach knows he needs to pound teams with D’Onta Foreman (31 carries!) and his friends, sprinkle in a Laviska Shenault carry and a Walker keeper now and again and shorten games. If he wants to win games, that’s the formula. It worked pretty well Thursday night.
  2. The Falcons’ offensive identity is unknown at this point. Atlanta entered the game second only to the Chicago Bears in rushing attempts. Running the ball is the Falcons’ (temporary) identity, and it’s been pretty effective this season. Yes, there’s a clarion call for Kyle Pitts and Drake London to get the ball more — and we’re in favor. But after running the ball 37 times (to only 30 pass dropbacks) in the last meeting against the Panthers 11 days ago, the Falcons started throwing the ball early. In the rain, no less. No, it wasn’t offensively out of whack — a 50-50 split, not counting penalties, on the first two drives. So then Arthur Smith overcompensated on the third drive with three straight runs backed up against his own end zone. Who doesn’t love a handoff on third-and-4 from your own 9-yard line? It was just a strange offensive night early for the Falcons, who fell in a 10-0 hole and couldn’t dig out of it. 
  3. At some point, the Falcons need to have a Marcus Mariota discussion. It would be unfair to completely throw Mariota under the bus, as he’s had some good moments this season — the 49ers game, for one, and most of the second half and overtime in the first meeting against the Panthers. But he really hasn’t been great most of the season, was a liability in Week 9 and struggled Thursday night. And it wasn’t just struggling — it was making rookie mistakes: throwing across his body, taking awful sacks instead of throwing it away, overthrowing a wide-open Kyle Pitts (who is 6-foot-6), throwing from his back without looking, etc. Carolina dropped at least two would-be interceptions in the game. The Falcons have had a few spots where they theoretically could have given Desmond Ridder a shot. Are we seeing a Kellen Mond-type of situation here? Or does Arthur Smith not trust his offensive line to hold up for the rookie? Does he still fancy his team a contender? Some other factor? We’d love to know. The longer Ridder doesn’t play this season, the more we wonder whether Smith wouldn’t prefer a different starting QB next year.
  4. Ikem Ekwonu could be a gem for Carolina. Very quietly, Ekwonu has put together a nice rookie season in what has been a pretty forgettable one for the Panthers in general. But if what we’re seeing the past few games from Ekwonu continues, they’ll have knocked out the all-important left tackle position for the next several years. Early this season, there were signs that he had some real work ahead of him and, to be fair, there were a few rookie moments Thursday night, too — most notably back-to-back penalties when the Panthers were backed up, plus two more flags we can’t overlook. Those absolutely must be cleaned up for him to take the next step. But his highlights demonstrate what kind of player the Panthers might have. Ekwonu has made big strides as a pass protector and is exactly the nasty run blocker he was advertised to be coming out of school, leading the way in that department all game. We think general manager Scott Fitterer and his staff might have a really nice player when Ekwonu cleans up his mistakes and hits his peak over the next few seasons.
  5. Is P.J. Walker the guy? When Wilks came out Monday morning and declared that Walker would be his starting quarterback, it came as a mild surprise to some. After all, he had a brutal first-half performance against the Bengals Sunday (two picks, three completions) before being benched and far outperformed by Baker Mayfield. Even with Mayfield’s damage coming in garbage time, no one would have been shocked had Wilks gone back to Mayfield. But Wilks has very much tacked against the wind from everything seemingly backed by his former boss, Matt Rhule. Several of Rhule’s assistants are now gone. The offensive identity has changed. And now Wilks seems to like what he has with Walker. From his view, there’s an easier path to running the kind of offense (see item No. 1) he seems to be leaning into. It begs the question what’s next for Mayfield and Sam Darnold, of course, but it’s not as if Walker should be starting next year. But could he stick as a fine backup for a young QB? Absolutely. So there’s some thought behind this, even if it comes with a risk: Wilks isn’t guaranteed to be back as coach.

Next Gen stat of the game: On Laviska Shenault’s 41-yd TD run, he reached a top speed of 20.29 mph, the fastest speed of his career as a ball carrier. He was only expected to gain 18 yards on the play, which had a TD probability of only 6.0%.

NFL Research: The Panthers converted a season-high six third downs on 15 attempts.

Image & Story Credit: nfl.com

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