What Saints Must Fix Before NFC South Clash with Panthers

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What Saints Must Fix Before NFC South Clash with Panthers
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints were meticulously picked apart, battered and left for dead on the turf of CenturyLink Field in Seattle Monday. The Seahawks convincingly defeated the Saints 34-7 and left no doubt which team was in charge in the NFC.

Everything seemed to go wrong for the Saints in Seattle. The team was held to fewer than 10 points for the first time this season, the 27-point loss was the worst New Orleans had endured since a 31-point beating in 2007 at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts, and the team even had trouble with its plane and was stranded in the Pacific Northwest overnight.

But there’s no time for New Orleans to lick its wounds. After Monday night’s loss the Saints have one less day to prepare for an upcoming divisional battle, said head coach Sean Payton in his postgame press conference.

We didn’t do a lot of things well in that game. We’ll have to come back on a short week now and get ready to play another real good football team at home on Sunday. We have to do a better job as coaches, starting with me. There are too many things that we didn’t do or do well enough, to give ourselves the opportunity to win.

The Carolina Panthers are coming to town.

Two months ago the Saints were 5-0 and looking way down at the 1-3 Panthers in the NFC South. But Carolina has rattled off eight wins in a row and erased that early 3.5 game lead the Saints once enjoyed. The teams will meet Sunday night in New Orleans with identical 9-3 records and a ton on the line.

The NFC South is up for grabs with four games left in the season. There’s not only the divisional crown to think about, but now both teams can lay a similar claim to the NFC’s second seed in the playoffs. Whichever team does better over the next month (they play one another twice in the last four games) likely will get a first-round bye.

Both the Panthers and Saints know the importance of Sunday’s game. Both saw what Seattle did to New Orleans in Week 13. What do the Saints have to do to make sure Carolina doesn’t take the NFC South lead for the first time all season?

 

Fix the Screen Game

The Saints have had trouble running the football all season. New Orleans ranks 23rd in the league in rushing yards per game and only four times has rushed as a team for over 100 yards in a game.

That doesn’t mean the running backs don’t play a huge role.

Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas are two of the top three Saints receivers in terms of catches, and both are in the top five on the team in receiving yards. Not only are Sproles and Thomas front-running receivers from the running back position on their team, they’re league leaders.

Sproles has 495 through the air, making him the No. 1 running back in the NFL in terms of receiving yards. Thomas ranks seventh with 427 yards receiving.

Both running backs are major threats to break down defenses through the air, and each was targeted frequently against the Seahawks. But neither was terribly effective.

Sproles caught eight passes but only turned in a 4.6 yards-per-catch average in Seattle. Thomas was a tick better with a 5.3 yards-per-catch average on his four receptions. But those figures are very low.

On the season Sproles averages nine yards per catch and Thomas 7.1. In five of Sproles’ 11 games he’s averaged more than 9.5 yards per catch. In eight of Thomas’ 12 games he’s averaged more than six yards per catch.

Seattle did a fantastic job of snuffing out the screen game and shutting it down.

Courtesy NFL.com

Since the Saints don’t have a good running game—that will become abundantly clear Sunday when they face Carolina’s second-ranked run defense—Sproles and Thomas both need to be a bigger factor through the air.

 

Be More Effective Throwing Deep

Quarterback Drew Brees completed just three of his 12 attempted passes of 10 yards or more Monday in Seattle and only once connected on a pass of 20 yards or more.

That doesn’t sound like Brees at all.

Brees has had great success throwing deep this season. He’s completed 35.6 percent of his passes of 20 yards or more, thrown for 847 yards and connected on 11 touchdown passes, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

When it comes to passing in the 10- to 19-yard range, Brees is even better. He’s completed 66.4 percent of his passes for 1,276 yards.

Drew Brees: Passing by Depth
Depth 2013 Depth vs. Seattle
20+ Yards 21-of-59, 847 yards, 11 TD, 1 INT 20+ Yards 0-of-6
10-19 Yards 73-of-110, 1,267 yards, 6 TD, 4 INT 10-19 Yards 3-of-6, 54 yards
0-9 yards 160-of-199, 1,244 yards, 7 TD, 2 INT 0-9 yards 17-of-19, 84 yards, 1 TD
Minus yards 69-of-79, 427 yards, 5 TD, 1 INT Minus yards 3-of-3, 9 yards

Pro Football Focus

Seattle shut Brees down deep on Monday, and a lot of that has to do with shutdown corner Richard Sherman, who’s arguably the best corner in the league, and a great game in coverage from cornerback Byron Maxwell.

Carolina’s secondary doesn’t pose the same threat as Seattle’s does, but up front the Panthers can get after Brees just like the Seahawks did. If Brees can find enough time to throw against Carolina, his deep-passing woes should easily be fixed.

 

More Pressure

One of the reasons the New Orleans defense has been so successful this season is the fact that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has found ways to dial up pressure using minimal manpower up front. Being able to get after the passer with only four or five guys has allowed Ryan to keep five and six defensive backs on the field, therefore shutting down opposing passers.

But Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson lit up the New Orleans secondary. Wilson went 22-for-30 with 310 yards and three touchdowns in Week 13. Take away a batted pass and a ball he threw away and Wilson’s quarterback rating was 148.5, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Wilson was 3-of-3 with a touchdown against the Saints' best cover corner, Keenan Lewis, and added a second touchdown against the Saints secondary by completing a pass in the end zone while Malcolm Jenkins was in coverage.

While fingers must be pointed at the defensive backfield of the Saints, plenty of blame has to land on the front seven too.

Defensive end Cameron Jordan for only the second time this season failed to register a sack or a quarterback hit, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Monday’s game in Seattle was Jordan’s worst game in regard to his grade from PFF. Akiem Hicks, the Saints' other defensive end, was also held without a sack or quarterback hit.

Of the New Orleans front seven, only Brodrick Bunkley, Tom Johnson, Parys Haralson and Junior Galette ever laid a hand on Wilson, and they only accounted for four quarterback hits and one sack.

If New Orleans can’t get more pressure on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton than it did Wilson in Seattle, Newton will be able to throw on the Saints defense too.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.

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