Falcons vs. Panthers
When: 1 p.m. today
Where: Bank of American Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
On TV, radio: FOX, 92.9-FM
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — While some in Atlanta are concerned about Matt Ryan’s recent flurry of interceptions, he’s nowhere close to matching the passing woes in Carolina.
Through eight games, the Panthers have one touchdown catch by a wide receiver. Yes, Steve Smith is still on the roster.
“I am totally shocked,” fellow receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. “It’s amazing. It’s befuddling to me. I don’t understand it.”
With the Falcons (5-3) and Panthers (3-5) bringing two of the league’s elite running backs in Michael Turner and DeAngelo Williams into today’s NFC South contest, the disparities in the passing game have helped define their opposite seasons.
Sure, Ryan has thrown eight interceptions in the past four games, but his six touchdowns in that span are one more than Carolina’s Jake Delhomme has mustered all season. With Ryan steady enough and Turner on a two-game tear, the Falcons remain in playoff position in the NFC after last week’s victory over Washington.
“Certainly I would like to play a little bit better, but it’s a long season and you’re going to have some ups and downs,” said Ryan, who threw a career-high three TDs in a Week 2 win over the Panthers. “I just have to grind it out, get through it, and prepare well during the week. All in all, I think we’re doing well.”
That’s not the case in Carolina, where Delhomme threw 13 interceptions in the first six games, barely kept his job, then hasn’t thrown a pick in two weeks. But in the past two games the Panthers have looked more like a single wing team, running the ball 83 times to only 45 passes.
They upset Arizona without completing a pass in the second half. Delhomme then threw only five first-half passes against New Orleans last week as Carolina built a 17-3 lead. When the Saints rallied and Delhomme was forced to throw, the Panthers managed only three points in the second half in a 30-20 loss.
It left Carolina, the defending division champ, with one more loss than all of last season.
“We have to almost throw caution to the wind a little bit and try not to play with as much caution,” said Muhammad, expected to return today after missing two games with a knee injury.
Four-time Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith, who has caught Carolina’s only TD pass by a receiver, is on pace for the fewest catches (68) and yards receiving (956) in a non-injury year since 2002. And the frustration is mounting.
After Smith caught a short pass in the flat last Sunday and was hit after going out of bounds by Saints safety Darren Sharper, Smith appeared to direct his anger not at Sharper, but at his coaches for the conservative play call.
“I’m a volatile guy, obviously,” Smith said, sarcastically. “So was I upset with multiple things.”
Asked what could be done to get him the ball more, Smith replied, “I’m not dipping into that can of chili.”
The positive is that minus a couple key fumbles, Williams has overcome the eight-man defensive fronts to rush for 307 yards in the past two weeks.
The numbers, though, are short of what Turner has produced. After being held under 100 yards in four straight games, Turner rushed for 151 yards in a loss to the Saints and 166 yards and two scores against the Redskins.
Turner will test Carolina’s improved run defense, which lost starting weakside linebacker Thomas Davis last week to a season-ending knee injury.
“When he can get his shoulders to stay north and south I think we’re a much better running team,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “It was really good to see Mike get back going, running the ball effectively because at the core that is what we want to do.”
It should also help Ryan, who had one of his best games in his two pro seasons in the first meeting with Carolina, a 28-20 win where he completed 21 of 27 passes, including a career-best 13 straight at one point.
The numbers haven’t been as good of late. He threw three-interceptions against the Saints, while left tackle Sam Baker (ankle) and receiver Brian Finneran (knee) are banged up. The Falcons are just 1-3 on the road.
“We’ve thought that Matt has done some really good things even though his numbers over the past three weeks have not been what we were accustomed to,” Smith said.
Panthers coach John Fox has denied they’ve watered down the passing game to prevent more Delhomme turnovers. But the Panthers have made a habit of calling draw plays on third-and-long.
“Be it run, be it pass, we’ve just got to execute,” Delhomme said. “Whatever is called, do what you’re supposed to do on that play.”
But with Landon Johnson, filling in for Davis, calling Sunday a must win to keep their playoff hopes alive, is it time for the Panthers to finally open up the passing game?
“If someone had told me by the eighth game that we would have a combined one touchdown by all of the receivers I probably would have put my whole house on it,” Muhammad said. “That’s why I don’t gamble.”