Can Cam Newton shake his slump?
That question will be answered in large part by the offensive line, which starts a different combination for the sixth game in a row. The line was embarrassed in Monday’s loss at Philadelphia, allowing a franchise record-tying nine sacks. Newton has looked shell-shocked at times during the worst four-game stretch of his career, during which he’s completed 53 percent of his passes and failed to post a passer rating higher than 73. He needs to get rid of the ball quicker and quit telegraphing throws. He should be helped by a Falcons defense ranked last against the pass (280.8 passing ypg) and next to last in sacks (11).
Figure out a way to get to Matt Ryan
In a division-clinching win at Atlanta in Week 17 last year, the Panthers sacked Matt Ryan nine times, the most in Ryan’s career and the Panthers’ single-game record. Leading the charge was defensive end Greg Hardy, who set a team record with four sacks. Hardy is gone and the pass rush hasn’t been the same. If Ryan gets time, he’ll pick apart the Carolina secondary the way Mark Sanchez did. Julio Jones, who missed both games against the Panthers last year with a foot injury, had his fourth 100-yard receiving game this season last week against Tampa Bay. Jones and Roddy White have too much speed for the Panthers if the front four can’t pressure Ryan.
Put Hester in a corner
Coffin corner-style punts have gone the way of the halfback pass, but the Panthers’ coverage team isn’t good enough to let Brad Nortman just kick the ball directly to Devin Hester. They tried that three years ago when Hester was with Chicago, and the future Hall-of-Famer returned it 69 yards for a touchdown. The same scenario unfolded last week when Darren Sproles cut through the middle of the coverage team for a 65-yard score. The Panthers have allowed the most punt return yardage in the league. They don’t need to take any chances with Hester.