Quietly, the Panthers began the year playing some of the toughest run defense in the league. The development was surprising considering their Cover-2 style scheme, rag-tag defensive line, and No. 22 ranking in rush defense from last season.
The key to Carolina’s early-season turnaround was exceptional linebacker play. Though he was only a two-down player, thumping middle linebacker Dan Connor was beastly in run support, and strong-side ‘backer James Anderson stepped up as a playmaker in his first season as a starter.
Connor would land on injured reserve with a fractured hip bone suffered in Week Nine, however, and weak-side linebacker Jon Beason has since been forced inside. The Panthers’ run defense has taken a nose dive, now ranking 27th in the league. Only three teams (Denver, Arizona, Detroit) have given up more rushing touchdowns than Carolina.
Jason Williams, acquired off waivers from the Cowboys in early November, was the latest Panthers linebacker to crack the starting lineup. Manning Beason’s old weak-side spot, Williams racked up 14 tackles, a fumble recovery, a fumble forced, and two pass breakups in his last two starts.
Per Darin Gantt of the Rock Hill Herald, Williams has been downgraded to out for Week Fourteen because of a knee injury. The Panthers are left with converted college defensive end Eric Norwood and undersized special teamer Jordan Senn as options at weak-side linebacker.
It can’t be good news as the Panthers head into Sunday’s matchup with a Falcons team that ranks fifth in the league in rushing attempts. Atlanta running back Michael Turner has at least 88 rushing yards in five of his last six games, including four efforts of at least 107 rushing yards.
The Falcons should be able to impose their will on the Panthers this weekend.