Each week the Carolina Panthers play in 2018, the Observer will choose a potential gamechanger — the player most likely to make a huge impact on the game. This week’s choice: Defensive tackle Dontari Poe
There’s a theory in NFL circles — grounded in sound logic — that any player who changes teams over the summer will be able to provide a little inside knowledge should their new franchise play the old.
It makes sense on a surface level, but Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Dontari Poe doesn’t quite prescribe to that philosophy. To Poe, anything a former player is going to tell you is something you’d already know if you watch enough film.
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But there is one thing players carry with them when they change teams. Just ... something more personal:
“I know he’s going to get after (Falcons center) Alex Mack, that’s for sure,” defensive end Wes Horton said of Poe. “I’ve seen him on tape so much dominating centers, and I think to play his old team, he’s gonna want to get after them.”
Poe’s a man of few words and would never own up to that, but it’s true. This time last year, he was a stalwart on the Falcons’ defensive line charged with stopping the Panthers’ three-headed rushing monster of Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey, and Jonathan Stewart. Now? Poe’s locker is almost within arms reach of McCaffrey’s, and he’s preparing to stop the offense he used to only see in practice.
About that offense: the Falcons are just two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance, and yet already so much has changed. The same players are there — Matt Ryan at quarterback, Julio Jones at receiver, and Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in the backfield — but the efficiency certainly isn’t.
During their Super Bowl run in 2016, the Falcons sported the league’s highest-scoring offense and the second-best offense in terms of yards. A year later, and with the depature of then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to San Francisco, they had fallen to 15th in scoring and eighth in total yards.
Poe and the rest of Carolina’s defensive line will try to prevent Atlanta from getting back on track. From his position at defensive tackle, Poe’s responsibilities are really two-fold.
First, clog the inside rushing lanes to make life as hard as possible on Freeman (who has yet to practice this week with a knee injury), Coleman, or whoever else carries the ball for Atlanta. Carolina hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in its past 21 games, and maintaining that streak is both a point of pride and emphasis.
But secondarily, Poe must penetrate the offensive line to disrupt the pocket around Ryan. Do so, and it opens up a chance to sack the quarterback — or at the very least to force Ryan into suboptimal situations.
“He’s got this strength down in the lower body that he can really anchor in,” Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said of Poe. “Sometimes he would eat these double teams and just sit right down.”
Considering the Falcons only go as far as their offense takes them, Poe’s ability to plunge into the offensive line and wreak havoc will go a long ways toward setting the tone defensively.
And a long way toward Poe getting some revenge on his former team, too.
“I’m going to have to be technically sound and just play like a dog,” he said. “I’m gonna have some fun.”