Matt Ryan ‘looks 25 again.’ What the Panthers are worried about against the Falcons

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Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow knows how the Falcons will attack his defense.

“We’re going to get wide zone (runs) a bunch in the ball game,” Snow said Thursday. “Then they’ll move play-action off of that. We’ve played most of the run real well. The wide zone we have not.”

Dallas and Minnesota are both wide zone teams that gashed Carolina for a combined 443 ground yards, and Snow expects Atlanta to build its game plan around what the Vikings and Cowboys did well. The Falcons feature two capable running backs in Mike Davis and playmaker Cordarrelle Patterson. Snow is familiar with Davis, coaching against him every day last season when Davis stepped in as the Panthers’ lead back in the wake of Christian McCaffrey’s series of injuries.

Snow raved Thursday about Patterson, who leads the Falcons in rushing yards (233) and total touchdowns (five). He also is second on the team in receiving yards with 296.

“Patterson is a really good football player,” Snow said. “He was not featured early in the season but has been the last three weeks. He’s really productive. Not only as a runner but as a receiver. He can do so many things. And he’s big and physical.”

Veteran Matt Ryan is quarterbacking well and covering up for an average offensive line. Atlanta has allowed only nine sacks this season, third-fewest behind Buffalo and the Rams. Snow said that’s a credit to Ryan.

Since starting 0-2, Ryan carried Atlanta to two straight wins. His 1,204 yards, 10 touchdowns and 106.9 passer rating provide stability to a relatively young offense.

“Their protection is good, but it’s Ryan,” Snow said. “He’s getting rid of the football and his movement in the pocket this year. I mean, it looks like he’s 25 again. It’s amazing. He’s been doing a really good job making great decisions with football. So I think he is making this whole thing really come together.”

Snow hyped Atlanta (3-3) well. Those names and concepts sound sexy but data and film tell a different story. The Falcons’ offense ranks 25th in Football Outsiders DVOA metric. More specifically, they are 26th in rushing and 25th in passing.

However, rookie tight end Kyle Pitts deserves all the hype. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound problem grabbed Snow’s attention over the past few weeks. Pitts caught seven passes for 163 yards last week against Miami. Though his position designation is tight end, Pitts plays a lot at wide receiver. Most of his yards have come when split outside or in the slot. He had long catches of 39 and 28 yards versus Dolphins safety Eric Rowe and cornerback Xavien Howard, respectively. Being too big for corners and faster than safeties means he’s a matchup nightmare.

“I was with Megatron (Calvin Johnson) in Detroit. They compare him to him,” Snow said. “We’ll see after we play him but he’s got really good movement. Great ball skills.”

It’s commonplace among NFL circles to compare Pitts to NFL Hall of Famer Johnson; his athleticism belongs on a basketball court. Instead, he’s tormenting NFL defensive backs.

But Snow believes he rosters an equalizer in safety Jeremy Chinn.

Carolina Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn, breaks up a pass meant for New York Jets wide receiver Elijah Moore, left, during first quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, September 12, 2021. The Panthers defeated the Jets 19-14.
Carolina Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn, breaks up a pass meant for New York Jets wide receiver Elijah Moore, left, during first quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, September 12, 2021. The Panthers defeated the Jets 19-14.

“That’s why we got Jeremy,” Snow said. “So he can match up on guys like Pitts.”

Chinn could have extra help if cornerback Stephon Gilmore is activated off the physically unable to perform list. Snow said Gilmore is “getting close” but his status — along with five or six other Panthers’ defenders — won’t crystallize until later this week.

Linebacker Shaq Thompson (foot) was a limited participant in Thursday’s practice. Thompson said he’ll travel to Atlanta but didn’t reveal whether he’ll play.

Panthers place Daviyon Nixon on IR

The Carolina Panthers are placing rookie Daviyon Nixon on the injured reserve list, two sources with knowledge of the move told The Observer.

Nixon, who is 6-foot-3, 306 pounds, suffered a knee injury in practice Wednesday, the sources said.

The injury is season-ending.

The Panthers drafted Nixon out of Iowa in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL draft. He played in all seven games this season, and had nine tackles and a half sack.

The Panthers now have three open spots on their roster to fill.

One will likely be a punter. One could be cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who is eligible to come off the team’s PUP list.

Observer reporter Jonathan Alexander contributed to this story.

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