Go all-in on Gonzalez
The Falcons’ play-makers have been dropping like flies. Pro Bowl wideout Julio Jones is out for the year with a foot injury. Receiver Roddy White has been sidelined two games with hamstring and is listed as questionable. Running back Steven Jackson missed four games with a hamstring injury before returning last week. But the Falcons still have future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, who pulled down half of his 24 catches in a Sept. 29 game against New England. The Panthers’ safeties and linebackers must be aware of Gonzalez at all times.
Panthers’ interior pass rush
Defensive end Charles Johnson had a team-record 3.5 sacks in the first meeting vs. the Falcons last season. Johnson’s speed rush was too much for tackle Tyson Clabo, who’s now in Miami and has been replaced by former Tampa Bay offensive lineman Jeremy Trueblood. But three of the Panthers’ seven sacks came on or were caused by pressure up the middle. With defensive tackle Dwan Edwards expected to play for the first time in six games, the Panthers will try to collapse the interior and force Matt Ryan into the outside rush of Johnson and Greg Hardy.
Umenyiora vs. Gross
The Falcons signed former Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora to replace John Abraham as an edge pass-rusher. At 31, Umenyiora is still disruptive. He has four sacks and returned an interception 68 yards for a touchdown against St. Louis. Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross, who has been playing well, was beaten on an inside move by Umenyiora last season in the Giants’ 36-7 win. Gross must keep Umenyiora off Cam Newton so the Panthers quarterback can maintain the rhythm he’s shown during a three-game win streak.