CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Atlanta Falcons probably won't have to wait long to find out what kind of day it will be this afternoon at Carolina. The first couple minutes of the game are likely to set the pattern.
In the season-opener against San Francisco, the Falcons got a 43-yard field goal on its first possession. A week ago at Denver, Atlanta went three plays and punted.
The Falcons beat the 49ers 36-38 and lost to the Broncos 42-14."I think one of the challenges also for our defense is the opening drive of both the game and the half," Atlanta coach Dan Reeves said. "We had four opportunities now, and the (opponent) has scored all four times. Carolina, I think, has had four opportunities (to open the game and the second half), and they've scored three out of those four times.
"Just the start of the game and the start of the second half, those are key match-ups for us. It's a challenge for our defense to try and get them off the field without scoring on the opening drive, as well as the second half."
The first couple minutes seems to set the tone for Atlanta. If the Falcons (1-1) start out quick immediately following the opening kickoff at 1 p.m. (Fox 54) at Ericsson Stadium, their NFC West encounter with Carolina (1-1) could be interesting. If they start out slow, it could be a blowout.
"It's only the third game and every game in this league is important," said quarterback Chris Chandler. "But this one might me a little more critical. We need to bounce back, especially with us playing St. Louis next week. We need some momentum for that game. You don't want to play the world champions at 1-2."The first couple minutes, according to wide receiver Terance Mathis, is a matter of concentration.
"We need to be more focused this week," he said. "Last week's game was terrible, but it's not time to panic. There's a lot of football ahead of us. We just need to focus and come out ready to play. This is still a good football team."
The first week, Atlanta had 359 total yards, including 80 on scoring drives to open the first and third quarters. A week ago, the Falcons had a paltry 186 yards, including combined losses of six yards to open each half.
"I think defensively and offensively, it is a challenge cause the things that we talked about if we were going to be successful, the two things we are doing the worst right now, is running the football and stopping the run. We've got to do a better job of tackling on defense, swarming to the football and getting the job done to force teams to throw the football. We want to force them to throw so we can put some pressure on (quarterback Steve) Beuerlein.
"We've got to run the football. That does all kinds of things. It sets up for us, offensively, all the things that we can do. It also helps us control the football and help out our defense. We've got to improve there."
The running game managed only 47 yards a week ago, but the Falcons were forced into throwing the ball early after they got behind 34-0 in the second quarter. And if Atlanta wants to throw this week, it will come with after several changes by both teams.Tim Dwight, the team's third receiver and punt returner, will miss a month after having an emergency appendectomy Wednesday. His spot on offense will go to Brian Finneran, who's never caught an NFL pass, while his place on the punt return team will go to Winslow Oliver, a former Panther.
Carolina, on the other hand, will move Eugene Robinson into the starting lineup for the first time this year. Robinson, who spent the last two years in Atlanta's secondary, was moved ahead of rookie Rashard Anderson for this afternoon's kickoff.
"It feels strange," Robinson told a Rock Hill, S.C., newspaper. "But I asked myself, and George Seifert asked me: `Do you feel up to it?' You know what? I said, `Here I am."'
Chuck Smith, who spent his first eight professional seasons with Atlanta before signing with Carolina as a free agent during the off-season, is listed as doubtful. The defensive end from Athens, Ga., however, is expected to play.
For Atlanta, fullback Bob Christian and back-up defensive end Chuck Wiley both were former players at Carolina.
The Panthers come into their first home game on a roll. Beuerlein had a career afternoon a week ago at San Francisco, hitting 24 of 32 passes for 364 yards and three touchdowns. Equally impressive was the way he spread his passes to several receivers: Muhsin Muhammad (eight catches for 108 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown), Donald Hayes (six catches for 115 yards, including a 24-yard TD) and Wesley Walls (five catches for 99 yards, including a 54-yard score).
Atlanta plans to counter with a simplified defense. Instead of running four or five different schemes as they did last week, the Falcons will use one or two basic schemes this afternoon and rely more heavily on its athleticism instead of trickery.
"It's going to be a challenge," Reeves said. "The first four games will really tell if we are going to be contending for a playoff spot. We will be able to tell where we're going to be (after today's game and next week's game at home against St. Louis)."
And the first sign is likely to come in the first couple minutes.