Carolina Panthers Safeties Key to Winning NFC South Showdown with Saints

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystDecember 4, 2013

Oct 24, 2013; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Mike James (25) runs with the ball as  Carolina Panthers strong safety Quintin Mikell (27) tackles him during the first half at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers are the NFL's hottest team and winners of eight straight headed into the franchise's biggest game in years this week.

If the Panthers are going to stroll into the Superdome, beat the New Orleans Saintsin prime time, no lessand take control of the NFC South, it's going to take more than just a great game from quarterback Cam Newton and a strong showing from the Panthers' formidable front seven.

If the Panthers are going to get the win, then Carolina's secondary is going to have to play its best game so far this season.

At first glance, that wouldn't appear to be that big of a stretch.

Carolina Panthers Defense 2013

The Panthers are playing as well defensively as any team in the NFL right now. Only the Seattle Seahawks have been stingier in 2013 in terms of yards allowed, and the Panthers and Seahawks are the only two teams in the NFL giving up fewer than 300 yards per game.

Moreover, the Panthers allow fewer points per game (13.1) than any team in the NFL.

The pass defense has also played well. The Panthers have allowed an average of 209.6 yards through the air, sixth in the NFL and fourth in the NFC. Only the Tennessee Titans have allowed fewer passing touchdowns this year than the nine the Panthers have surrendered.

There's even a blueprint for their success against the Saints. Back in Week 11, the Carolina defense played well against another superstar quarterback. Granted, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots threw for 296 yards in Charlotte, but the Panthers held him to a single touchdown pass in a 24-20 Carolina win.

So there you go. The Panthers have a good pass defense and don't allow many passing scores. They bend, but don't break.

What's the problem, then?

Well, for starters, this game isn't in Charlotte. It's in New Orleans, and playing the Saints in the Superdome is a whole different can of worms.

The pasting the Saints received at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night was both good and bad for the Panthers. The Seahawks did an excellent job of exploiting some weaknesses that the Panthers should also be able to attack. That's good.

Embarrassing Drew Brees six days before a huge division game, one that he gets to play at home? Not so much.

You see, Brees is kind of good in the Superdome.

Drew Brees Home Stats 2013
Comp. %Yards/GameTDINTRating
6 games

The last time that Carolina traveled to the Big Easy to face the Saints, Brees threw for 396 yards and four touchdowns. The Panthers won that game 44-38, but the New Orleans defense is light-years better than a year ago.

The year before that? 389 yards and five scores in a 45-17 Saints romp. Prior to last year, the Panthers hadn't won in New Orleans since 2008, and just like last year, that was a shootout where Brees threw for nearly 400 yards.

December 30, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) throws against the Carolina Panthers during the second half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Panthers defeated the Saints 44-38. Mandatory Credit: Derick E
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, there are differences in the Panthers' secondary this year, and it's those newcomers who may very well determine the outcome of this game.

There's an excellent chance that we're going to see a lot of Cover 2 from the Panthers on Sunday, with the safeties deep to help out both with tight end Jimmy Grahamwho had nine grabs for 115 yards and a touchdown in their last meetingand to prevent Brees from torching the Panthers over the top.

Unfortunately, that places a lot of stress on the weak point of the Carolina defense.

Carolina Panthers Safeties 2013
PlayerOverall GradeRankCoverage GradeRank
Quintin Mikell1.0273.615
Mike Mitchell- 0.439- 0.240
Robert Lester5.3114.810
Per Pro Football Focus

Whether due to injuries or performance, the safety slots in Carolina have been a revolving door this year. None of the Panthers' starting safeties rank inside the top 25 at their position at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

If there's a silver lining, both reserve Robert Lester and Quintin Mikell rank inside the top 15 among safeties in pass coverage.

They're going to need those coverage skills Sunday night.

Mikell, fellow starter Michael Mitchell and Lester are also going to have to react on a dime in this game. The Saints throw as many screen passes as any team in the NFL.

Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are both talented linebackers, but should they miss a tackleeven the best occasionally dowithout a safety there to back them up, then a six-yard gain becomes 26.

That's how the Saints beat you. They keep chipping away underneath and over the middle, picking up 6-8 yards a pop. As soon as the safeties start creeping in to help out, over the top Brees goes.

Mind you, this is a tall order, and how the safeties play won't make a bit of difference if the front four doesn't get pressure and the linebackers don't hold their own against those screens.

Oh, the offense has to play well too. Hey, it's the Saints in the dome. No one said it was going to be easy.

However, while the storylines this week will be about Newton vs, Brees, it's the unsung players at the back end of the Panthers defense who may well determine who is in first place in the division at the end of Week 14.