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How Can Carolina's Secondary Bounce Back After Being Exposed by Saints?

Dec 8, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles (43) runs as Carolina Panthers strong safety Quintin Mikell (27) and cornerback Drayton Florence (29) chase during the first half of a game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Panthers 31-13. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport
Knox BardeenNFC South Lead WriterDecember 14, 2013

Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints did a number on the Carolina Panthers defense in Week 14, something that no other offense had previously been able to do.

Brees threw for 313 yards (only Russell Wilson threw for more against Carolina this season in a Week 1 loss to the Seattle Seahawks) and four touchdowns and the Saints pasted 31 points on this Carolina defense, which had only given up 42 points in its previous three games combined.

Brees was able to carve up Carolina’s secondary with passes over the middle and by throwing the ball deep. Brees completed five passes of 20 yards or more and was 20-for-25 with 216 yards with all four of his touchdown throws coming in the middle of the field. Brees only connected on 10 passes for 97 yards to the outside of the field.

First and foremost, the Panthers are going to have to shut down the opportunities that quarterback Geno Smith and the New York Jets will hame, the same opportunities that Brees and the Saints utilized.

Taking away the deep-ball opportunities should be the first objective for Carolina. It’s tough to win football games when five passing plays go for 20 or more yards. But Smith has had success throwing deep.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Smith is 22-for-52 on passes of 20 yards or more this season. Take away dropped passes and Smith’s accuracy rating of 46.2 percent is the fourth best among NFL quarterbacks who have taken at least 50 percent of his team’s snaps.

But while Smith is highly accurate on passes on 20 yards or more, he’s also susceptible to turnovers. Smith and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer lead the NFL with seven interceptions thrown when attempting a pass of 20 yards or more.

Carolina’s opportunistic secondary—safeties Michael Mitchell and Robert Lester both rank in the top 10 in interceptions among safeties—needs to shore up the middle of the field and pick off any pass Smith leaves available for ballhawking.

Carolina Panthers: 2013 Interceptions
PlayerPostionInterceptions
Mike MitchellS4
Robert LesterS3
Luke KuechlyLB3
Drayton FlorenceCB2
Thomas DavisLB1
Captain MunnerlynCB1
Melvin WhiteCB1
Josh ThomasCB1
ESPN

If the Panthers are able to slow down and take advantage of Smith’s deep passing, the Carolina defense should have a good day. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Smith ranks dead last in the league in accuracy percentage, a metric that “accounts for dropped passes, throw aways, spiked balls, batted passes and passes where the quarterback was hit while they threw the ball.”

Last week Brees had an accuracy percentage of 76.9 percent, just higher than his season average of 76.5 percent where he ranks fourth in the league. Smith’s league-worst mark is 67.1 percent.

The Panthers defense must take advantage of Smith's inaccuracies. A good way to add fuel to the fire is to get pressure on the rookie passer. Smith’s passer rating drops 33.4 points when he’s under pressure, and he’s only thrown one touchdown pass while under duress.

The Panthers didn’t do a good job of getting pressure on Brees last week and must get after Smith to turns things around in Week 15.

New Orleans didn’t make too much of an effort to get its ground game going last week, the Saints notched just 14 carries among players not named Brees. The Jets, on the other hand, will surely attempt to establish the run.

The Jets average 126.1 yards per game on the ground and in five of their last seven games have eclipsed the 100-yard mark. Running back Chris Ivory ranks 21st in the league with his 639 rushing yards, but over the last four games he’s notched 270 yards on the ground, good for 11th in the NFL.

Fortunately for the Panthers, Carolina’s run defense is the best in the league, allowing just 79.4 yards per game on the ground.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Star Lotulelei ranks No. 1 in the NFL among defensive tackles in their proprietary metric stop percentage, a figure that looks at how often a player makes a stop in the run game. Greg Hardy ranks third among 4-3 defensive ends.

The Panthers up front should make it difficult for Ivory and running back Bilal Powell to churn out yardage on the ground. That will force Smith to attempt to win this game for the Jets through the air.

And that’s a perfect opportunity for Carolina’s secondary to put the Saints game in the past and gain some momentum against the Jets.

 

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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