The Falcons and Panthers square off in the season opener this Sunday, but this matchup will look a lot different than last year.
Carolina has completely cleaned house, firing Matt Rhule and bringing in Frank Reich. More notably, the Panthers traded up to the first overall pick to select Bryce Young, who is one of the most highly touted quarterbacks to come out of college in years.
For Atlanta, potentially the most impactful change came at quarterback. Desmond Ridder takes the reins and will have every opportunity to prove he’s the long-term solution. The offense returns most of its starters, adding two high draft picks in Bijan Robinson and Matthew Bergeron.
However, the changes that should excite Falcons fans comes on the other side of the ball. Terry Fontenot spent most of his cap space on defensive free agents. Jessie Bates III garnered the biggest deal and will captain the defense from the backend. Kaden Elliss joins the Falcons from the Saints and will command the second level as well as provide a pass rush presence on third downs.
Within those immense defensive changes lies the most glaring difference between this team and last year’s — the defensive line. The Panthers’ head coach acknowledged those improvements.
“They’ve added a lot of pieces to that defensive front that you would think is going to make an impact,” Reich said.
Calais Campbell, David Onyemata, and Bud Dupree headline the additions. They join Grady Jarrett, Ta’Quon Graham, Lorenzo Carter, Zach Harrison and Arnold Ebiketie. That’s a stark difference from 2022.
“Last year, when you looked at their team statistically, where they were weak was they ranked 31st as far as affecting the quarterback,” Reich said. “To their credit, they’ve addressed it.”
The Falcons have ranked near the bottom of the league in every pass rush metric since the new regime took over, and the front office invested into fixing that. To illustrate how bad that facet of the team was, listen to this stat. If you combine the Falcons sack total from 2020-2022 (68), it’s still fewer than the Eagles had in 2022 alone (70).
This should be a much improved unit and maybe the most improved in all of football. They have a chance on Sunday to flex their muscles too. The Panthers boast a pretty porous offensive line.
Chandler Zavala is a rookie and will make his debut on Sunday. The trio of Jarrett, Campbell, and Onyemata should wreak havoc. Jalen Mayfield experienced a similar baptism by fire in 2021 against an Eagles front that featured Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox. Expect Zavala to struggle.
Brady Christensen isn’t a rookie but will likely have an equally difficult time containing Jarrett, Campbell, and Onyemata. Moreover, Ikem Ekwonu has struggled this summer and will draw Campbell, Bud Dupree, and Arnold Ebiketie.
This Falcons defensive front should feast.
Photographer: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire