Panthers vs. Saints: Improved Defenses Will Be Key to Victory for Both Teams

Tyler Brooke@TylerDBrookeSenior Analyst IIDecember 7, 2013

Dec 1, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers defensive end Wes Horton (96) reacts after sacking Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon (8) (not pictured) in the fourth quarter. The Carolina Panthers defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27-6 at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Cam Newton and Drew Brees will get all of the attention, but it will be the two defenses that will be key for the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints on Sunday Night Football.

With both teams currently at 9-3, the winner of this game would take control of the NFC South, and that could give them a first-round bye with how the rest of the conference is playing out.  

The team that finishes second in the division would then have to play in the wild card round and likely play away from home throughout the playoffs. So it's safe to say that this is an incredibly important matchup.

The Panthers and Saints have two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, with Brees and Newton having fantastic seasons.  The two offenses have combined for 49.8 points per game, but it's highly unlikely that they score anywhere near that frequently with how well both defenses have played this season.

In 2012, the Saints easily had the worst defense in the league.  They gave up 29.4 points and 440.1 total yards per game, ranking 31st and 32nd in the NFL respectively.  Pro Football Focus (subscription required) had the Saints as the worst overall defense in the league with a minus-93.4 grade.

Saints Defense 2012 vs. 2013
YearYds/GPass Yds/GRush Yds/GPts/G

Things have changed dramatically for the Saints this season, and a big reason for that is due to the hiring of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.  The Saints are now allowing just 19.2 points and 319.8 yards per game, putting them in the top 10 in both categories.

The switch to a 3-4 defensive scheme could have hurt the Saints and caused growing pains, but the transition has been almost flawless.  A strong defensive line is the main reason for that, with players like Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks making huge plays and combining for 13 sacks.  Those two will be key to putting pressure on Newton and forcing him to make quick decisions with the ball.

Nov 10, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan prior to a game against the Dallas Cowboys at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

That strong front seven will also be important in stopping the run game for the Panthers.  Carolina is averaging 129.3 rushing yards per game, while the Saints are allowing 113.2, so they will need to find ways to frustrate the backfield of DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert.

The Panthers have an improved defense as well, but theirs has become one of the best in the entire league.  In 2012, they gave up 22.7 points and 333.1 yards per game, and while those numbers were solid, they weren't nearly at the elite level that they're at now.

Panthers Defense 2012 vs. 2013
YearYds/GPass Yds/GRush Yds/GPts/G

This year, Carolina now allows just 289.8 yards per game, which is second to the Seattle Seahawks, and 13.1 points per game, which is the best in the league by 2.4 points.

Rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei has been so important to this defense.  They had a serious need for an interior presence in their defense in 2012, and with him now there, the rest of the players around him can keep making big plays.

The Saints seriously struggled last week against a defense that's just as good, and that's great news for the Panthers.  New Orleans lost 34-7 against the Seahawks, putting up just 188 yards of total offense.  If the Panthers can hold the Saints to a mark anywhere near that, they should be in great shape.

Fans would love to see a shootout in this game, but it's likely going to be a matchup between two very tough defenses that will keep making big plays for 60 minutes to determine which team can grab the top spot in the NFC South.