- Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer
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A second consecutive road game has the Atlanta Falcons traveling to Charlotte to face Cam Newton and the streaking Carolina Panthers, who have won three straight. Quarterback Matt Ryan is 7-3 all-time against the Panthers, but Newton and Carolina won the last matchup, 30-20.
At 2-5, there is absolutely no margin for error for the Falcons, who have the mighty Seattle Seahawks on the schedule next.
Here's what to watch for Sunday at Bank of America Stadium:
Roddy sighting: At last, Falcons wide receiver Roddy White returned to practice Friday after missing the last two games with hamstring and ankle injuries. White said he heard a "pop" when he pulled his hamstring in a Week 5 loss to the New York Jets. He suffered a right high-ankle sprain during the preseason, an injury White admitted he probably should have been more cautious with rather than playing through the pain. That being said, it makes sense for White and the Falcons to proceed with caution this time around. True, White wants to be back on the field, and his teammates want him back. But it might be wiser to keep him out another week, considering he was limited upon his return. A jovial White called his status a "game-time decision" and vowed to test it out with pre-game sprints, much like teammate Asante Samuel (thigh) did against the New England Patriots in Week 4. Guess what? Samuel was inactive for that game.
Tight-knit position: Panthers tight end Greg Olsen has the utmost respect for Falcons veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez. "First and foremost, you have to respect the fact that he's played the game as such a high level for as long as he has," Olsen said of Gonzalez. "I was a high school tight end coming out and he was the premier guy in the league. And now here I am, seven years into my NFL career, and he's still playing." It will be interesting to see how both perform come Sunday. Gonzalez is looking to extend his streak of consecutive games with a catch to 203, while Olsen is set to play in his 102nd consecutive game, the third-longest active streak behind Dallas' Jason Witten (163) and Gonzalez (109). "I've always liked Greg. He's a big, strong, fast guy who can catch," Gonzalez said of Olsen. "In fact, I've been surprised that he hasn't been at the top, like he hasn't put up these huge numbers like these others tight ends around the league. ... I don't know why they don't throw him the ball 10, 15 times a game." Olsen said the NFC South, hands down, has the best tight ends in the league. Hard to argue when New Orleans' Jimmy Graham is in that group.
Block party: There's no secret why the Falcons have the worst rushing offense in the league: poor blocking. They enter Sunday's game with an average of just 62.4 rushing yard per game and haven't rushed for more than 100 yards in a game as a group since Week 3 at Miami (146). Most figured Steven Jackson's return last week from a hamstring injury would bolster the rushing attack, but he couldn't get going due to poor blocking. At least right guard Garrett Reynolds admitted the offensive line needed to provide a better push. Problem is, it will be tough for the Falcons to get it going against the league's second-best run defense, led by mouthy Greg Hardy and tackling-machine Luke Kuechly. The Panthers have allowed just one 100-yard rusher and three rushing touchdowns since Week 14 of last year. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter talked in the past of how screens can be an extension of the running game, so keeping Jacquizz Rodgers involved in the screen game might be a key factor for the Falcons.
Tough read: New Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula's conservative approach has worked with Newton, but don't be surprised if Shula and the Panthers break out read-option plays against the Falcons. Surely they are aware of the explosive plays given up by the Falcons defense, including last week's 80-yard sprint by Arizona's Andre Ellington. In fact, Newton broke loose for a 72-yard touchdown run against the Falcons last season out of the read-option. Newton rushed for 202 total yards against the Falcons last season, even more reason to unleash the read-option. Not to mention the Panthers are getting running back Jonathan Stewart back, which could make Carolina's rushing attack that much more potent -- and the read-option more dangerous.