Is the Panthers Defense Really Good Enough to Slow Saints in New Orleans?

Knox Bardeen@knoxbardeenNFC South Lead WriterDecember 7, 2013

Dec 1, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Bobby Rainey (43) gets stopped by Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis (58), defensive tackle Colin Cole (91) and linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) during the second half of the game at Bank of America Stadium. Carolina wins 27-6. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports
Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Historically, slowing down the New Orleans Saints has been an issue. At least it has been since quarterback Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton landed in town and turned the Saints into an offensive juggernaut.

In most cases, when you need to pose the question, “Is Team X good enough to slow down the Saints?” the reason the question needed to be asked is because their offense is so powerful and Brees is used to moving the ball down the field and putting points on the scoreboard at will. And that’s typically been the case this season.

New Orleans ranks seventh in the league in scoring with 26 points per game and sixth in total yardage at 396.1 yards per game.

But headed into Week 14, asking whether or not Team X can slow down the Saints isn’t all about New Orleans. The Saints are hosting the Carolina Panthers on Sunday Night Football, and the Panthers have a damned good defense.

The Panthers rank second in the league in yards allowed per game (289.8) and are one of only two teams that have held opponents on average to below 300 yards per game this season. When it comes to keeping points off the scoreboard, Carolina’s defense is the best in the league, holding teams to a paltry 13.1 points per game.

What we’re about to see on Sunday is the Saints’ unstoppable force versus the Panthers’ immovable object. Who’ll win?

Fortunately, as long as prognostication is your thing, there’s some very recent data to help answer this question.

In Week 13, New Orleans carried that powerful offense into Seattle and was stymied. This is extremely usable data because the Seahawks rank first in the league with only 284.5 yards allowed per game and second with 15.5 points allowed per game.

Defense: Seattle Seahawks vs. Carolina Panthers
TeamYards/GameRankPoints/GameRankvs. Runvs. Pass
Carolina289.82nd13.11st80.3 (2nd)209.6 (6th)
Seattle284.51st15.52nd107.2 (13th)177.3 (1st)

Statistically speaking, the Panthers and Seahawks on defense are mirror images of one another. But games are played on the field, and there are a number of reasons why the circumstances surrounding Week 14 are nothing like Week 13.

The Saints are Different at Home

When New Orleans was manhandled in Seattle, 34-7, the operative phrase was “in Seattle.” The Saints are a much better team at home.

Not only do the Saints score dramatically more in the Superdome compared to away games, but their record is 6-0 at home versus 3-3 on the road. Their record, however, isn’t the grossest of home-road splits.

New Orleans Saints: Home/Road Splits
VenueW-LPoints/GamePoints Allowed/GameTotal Yards
Pro Football Reference

The point differential of games at home is a dramatic plus-17.3; the Saints are beating opponents in the Superdome by more than two touchdowns and a field goal. On the road the Saints are actually being outscored by 3.7 points per game.

Moving the ball is much easier for Brees and this offense at home too.

The Saints have averaged 450.8 yards per game at home and have eclipsed the 400-yard mark of total offense in four of their six contests. On the road that average plummets to 341.3 yards per game, and only once has New Orleans gone over the 400-yard plateau.

Don’t expect the Panthers to befuddle the Saints on Sunday without the advantage of locale.

The Panthers don’t have Seattle’s Secondary

New Orleans was only able to put seven points on the board in Week 13 in Seattle and gained just 188 yards of total offense. Brees was held to 147 passing yards, the first time since Week 16 of the 2011 season he’d been held to under 200 yards through the air.

The Seahawks are the No. 1 team in the NFL at holding teams at bay through the air, allowing just 177.3 yards-per-game passing. Much of that has to do with cornerback Richard Sherman, one the best cover corners in the league.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Sherman ranks second in the NFL in their proprietary metric, cover snaps per reception, a glance at how many times a cornerback is the primary man in coverage and how many receptions he allows. Sherman allows just one reception in every 16.5 cover snaps.

Byron Maxwell played on the opposite side of Sherman in Week 13 and had a terrific game. He was thrown at twice by Brees, and Maxwell defended both attempts. Maxwell ranks 29th in the league among cornerbacks who have played at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps and allows a reception in every 11.3 cover snaps.

The Panthers don’t have the luxury of Sherman or a stacked defensive backfield.

Captain Munnerlyn, Carolina’s starting left corner, has a cover snaps-per-reception score of 8.4, which ranks him 93rd among corners who play at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps. Drayton Florence and Melvin White have been alternating starts on the right side and often play together, as Carolina has used them in a nickel package frequently since Week 5.

Nov 10, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (41) is unable to control the ball on an incomplete pass intended for San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin (81) during the first quarter at Candlestick Park. M
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Florence has played 61 percent of Carolina’s defensive snaps since Week 5 and White 75.8 percent. Florence’s Pro Football Focus (subscription required) cover snaps-per-reception score is 15.5, good for fourth in the league. White ranks 50th with a 10.4 score.

Not only is the personnel better in Seattle’s secondary, but the Seahawks were able to shut down New Orleans’ passing offense with just two corners. Carolina is likely going to have to use three corners, which will take away one man from the middle or front line of the defense.

Carolina can Bring the Pain

The Panthers got good news on Wednesday from defensive end Charles Johnson. According to Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer, Johnson will play on Sunday even though he might not be 100 percent.

Johnson sprained the MCL in his right knee in Week 11 and has missed two games. Prior to his injury, Johnson was one of the best 4-3 pass-rushing defensive ends in the business.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Johnson ranked third in the NFL in pass-rush productivity. He’s registered nine sacks, seven quarterback hits and 34 hurries this season.

Seattle can boast the second-ranked 4-3 defensive end in Michael Bennett in terms of rushing the passer, but what no team in the league can claim is two top-notch rush ends.

Dec 22, 2012; Charlotte, NC, USA; Oakland Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer (3) is hurt as he is hit by Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy (76) and defensive end Charles Johnson (95) helps defend in the first quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Ma

On the opposite side of Johnson is Greg Hardy, who ranks fifth in the league in pass-rush productivity. He’s notched seven sacks, 15 quarterback hits and 32 hurries.

Because the Panthers are going to be able to bring pressure on Brees like no other team in the NFL can, some of the stress is going to be taken off the Carolina secondary. If Brees can’t find a way to get the ball out quickly on Sunday, he could get battered.

Can the Panthers Slow the Saints?

The answer is a resounding yes.

To really examine this question, however, it’s important to look at how Carolina has played versus similar offenses. New Orleans is bringing one of the best offenses in the league into this Week 14 matchup, but others have been good too.

The Saints own the sixth-ranked offense in terms of total yards with 396.1 per game. The Panthers have played the New England Patriots, who are the ninth-ranked offense in the league, and the Seahawks, who brought the 11th-ranked offense.

While the results were mixed (Carolina lost to Seattle and beat New England), the Panthers were able to slow both offenses. Seattle was only able to muster 69.5 percent of its average total yards and New England 79.4 percent.

That’s an enormous drop in productivity.

Panthers vs. Top Offenses (Total Yards)
TeamTotal Yards/GameNFL RankActual Yards vs. CarolinaPct.
New England377.89th30079.4%
New Orleans396.16th??????

When it comes to scoring, the Panthers can make similar claims of being able to slow down the best.

The Saints have the seventh-ranked scoring offense with 26 points per game. Carolina has played three of the top-10 scoring offenses already and won two of those games.

Seattle averages 26.8 points per game, but Carolina held the Seahawks to just 12 points. New England averages 26.8 points per game and only notched 20 on the Panthers. And the San Francisco 49ers were only able to score nine points on this Carolina defense, and they average 24.8 points per game.

Panthers vs. Top Offenses (Scoring)
TeamPoints/GameNFL RankActual Points vs. CarolinaPct.
New England26.86th2074.6%
San Francisco24.810th936.3%
New Orleans26.07th??????

In terms of total yards, Carolina has held opponents this season to 98.8 percent of their season averages. But it’s the Panthers’ ability to keep points off the board that’s impressive.

Carolina’s 12 opponents this season sit now with a points-per-game average of 22.6. But the Panthers have held them to a combined average of 13.1 points per game. That means teams playing the Panthers have only scored 57.9 percent of the points they normally score.

So yes, the Panthers will slow down the Saints on Sunday. But that’s not the most pressing question.

Will the Panthers be able to slow the Saints enough to win in New Orleans? I don’t think so.

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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