Oct 29, 2020; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA;  Carolina Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore (12) tries to evade Atlanta Falcons strong safety Keanu Neal (22) and  linebacker Foye Oluokun (54) during the second half at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

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Panthers ride four-game skid into division duel with rising Falcons

Quarterback discussions around the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons took on vastly different tones going into Sunday’s meeting in Atlanta.

It will be the first meeting of the season between the NFC South rivals.

The Panthers stick with Sam Darnold this week, despite recent drop-offs in production that compelled head coach Matt Rhule to declare he’s trying to get his quarterback on the level he played at in September.

The Falcons are flourishing suddenly, thanks to veteran quarterback Matt Ryan, who has 10 touchdowns and one interception in the past four games.

“We’re a 3-4 football team right now,” Rhule said. “We’ve got to find a way to win this week.”

The Panthers lost four in a row following a 3-0 start. Carolina went through a second-half quarterback change last week with Darnold replaced by P.J. Walker. But that was a temporary move.

“When you’re the quarterback, it has to be good enough,” Rhule said, backing up the reason for the mid-game change. “As always, he needs some help.”

The Panthers’ offensive woes have been magnified during the losing streak, and the absence of running back Christian McCaffrey only complicates the search for a solution. But McCaffrey has played in only four of the past 21 Carolina games.

“Reads don’t change because Christian isn’t the game,” Darnold said.

The Panthers insist they’re determined to make things work with Darnold taking the snaps.

“We all have Sam’s back,” Carolina tight end Ian Thomas said. “I think everyone on the team can say that. There’s not one thing negative I can point out about Sam.”

Darnold has thrown eight interceptions to go with seven touchdown passes.

Carolina’s offensive woes were glaring coming off a 25-3 road loss to the New York Giants. Much of the strong work from the defense has been shielded.

“I just think we need to lock back in to what has worked,” Thomas said. “(We need) to get that rhythm that we need.”

Rhule said lots of areas of the offense are being evaluated.

“We have to get something fixed,” Rhule said. “Figure out why we were throwing the ball for 300 yards a game or 280 yards a game for the first three games and we’re struggling to complete very many passes right now.”

Darnold said, “We have to execute better and all be on the same page.”

The Falcons (3-3) have won two straight, though each of their victories have come by seven points or less over the one-win Jets, Dolphins and the Giants, who are 2-5.

The Falcons have figured out their passing attack. They averaged 232 yards per game in the air in going 0-2 to begin the season, but since then they’ve posted 301 passing yards per game.

“Like everything in the NFL, there are peaks and valleys,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said.

The spark has come in large part from tight end Kyle Pitts. The rookie had seven receptions for 163 yards last week and is starting to flourish while lining up wide as a receiver in one-on-one coverage. Four of his catches for more than 100 yards came in that scenario last week.

Ryan has 12 touchdown throws with four interceptions. His leadership has given Smith, who’s in his first season, a greater appreciation.

“Obviously, he’s got confidence,” Smith said. “But he’s going to lead this football team in a way to lead from the front.”

Pitts has 471 receiving yards, most by a tight end in their first six career games in NFL history, on 31 catches and a touchdown.

The Falcons are 0-2 this season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but with the Word Series being held in Atlanta this weekend they hope to benefit from that buzz as well.

“We need to win at home,” Smith said. “It’ll be a big weekend around Atlanta. We’re hoping to get a couple good Braves wins and then we could cap it off Sunday afternoon for them.”

The Panthers did make a change at punter, releasing Ryan Winslow and signing Lachlan Edwards.

It’s possible that linebacker Shaq Thompson could be back in action for Carolina on Sunday, Rhule said, though he was limited in Wednesday’s practice. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, acquired via trade from the New England Patriots, has a chance to debut and would conceivably have an assignment or two over Pitts.

Rhule said he’s “hopeful” Gilmore can suit up.

The Falcons lead the series against Carolina 33-19 and have won six of seven. They split two meetings last season.

–Field Level Media

Field Level Media
Sport Writer & Editor
FLM has a North American focus while tying into regional and hyper-local resources – providing the ability to distribute compelling content through the writing of professional journalists. As the U.S. sports content provider to dozens of digital and print media publishers through strategic partnerships with the likes of Reuters and Nielsen Sports, FLM covers the nuts and bolts with a breaking news desk and game event coverage.

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