"Hey fellas! This is what you work all off season for. This is why you lift all them weights! This is why you do all that."
This is a quote from my all-time favorite coach Bill Parcells (of New York Giants fame), as told to his team in the heat of battle. This quote is apropos in regard to the tilt between the 10-4 New Orleans Saints and the 10-4 Carolina Panthers.
This game is virtually for all the marbles.
When the Saints travel to Carolina, it will be a rematch of the game previously dubbed by many as "the biggest game of the year." A game that saw the Saints blow the Panthers out of the water by a score of 31-13. But instead of taking care of the lowly St. Louis Rams in their subsequent game, the Saints were upset in emphatic fashion and forced back into a tie with Carolina.
As the Rams game unveiled, among others, the Saints aren't remotely the same team on the road as they are at home. They lack swagger and, at times, generally look disinterested if they don't jump out to a fast start.
We've pined for the Saints to employ a no-huddle attack, and it was only fitting that when the Saints went to it against the Rams, they were undoubtedly at their best. The only problem was they did it reactively opposed to proactively.
This is the same reactive thinking that saw them finally bench left tackle Charles Brown against the Rams and name rookie tackle Terron Armstead the starter for this tilt, according to NFL.com's Kevin Patra. A proactive team would've benched him at least 10 weeks prior. But instead, the Saints were "waiting on the world to change," to quote the great John Mayer.
Now they are throwing Armstead to the wolves, so to speak, when he could have gotten game experience much earlier in the season.
This is also the same thought process that saw them finally jettison oft-erratic kicker Garrett Hartley, according to Katherine Terrell of the Times-Picayune, in favor of veteran kicker Shayne Graham—which was also reported by Terrell.
It's very rare that Super Bowl-caliber teams struggle to make tough personnel decisions. But as we've come to know, New Orleans operates at its own pace...literally.
Since we literally just did the full roster breakdown in the game preview two weeks ago, there's no need to beat a dead horse (Who does that anyway?). Instead, let's take a look at the factors involved in that outcome.
Took Steve Smith out of the game
Panthers' all-world receiver Steve Smith had very little impact in the first meeting. His six-catch, 49-yard performance was a far departure from the dominant statistical output normally seen from Smith. If it weren't for a 17-yard touchdown toward the end of the game, Smith would've officially been put on a milk carton.
The Saints did an excellent job of pushing Smith off his spots with physical play. The Panthers usually play Smith inside to insure he draws a favorable matchup. While Smith enjoyed an advantage from a technical standpoint, he finally met his match as far as physicality goes.
For those unfamiliar with Smith, he's the toughest player in the NFL, pound-for-pound. At 5'9" and 185 pounds, Smith is an unbelievable blend of power, agility and balance. He's similar to a cat in that he always seems to land on his feet in a scuffle.
Smith lives off crossers, especially against zone coverage. But every time the Panthers sent him on one, he was met with physical play that had him thinking more of defending himself rather than making a play. As seen in this GIF, Smith barely avoids his own teammate Ted Ginn Jr., who gets flattened at the line of scrimmage:
Expect the Panthers to play Smith more at the X- and Z-receiver spots in an effort to get him in space. This is where corner Keenan Lewis' penchant for physical play will come in handy. If he can shadow Smith and erase him from the stats sheet, this will put more pressure on the other Carolina targets to step up and shine.
One player who will undoubtedly have more of an impact will be Panthers tight end Greg Olsen. He had eight catches in the first meeting, but he was only able to generate 40 yards thanks, in part, to Saints rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro.
Vaccaro was dishing out punishment to anyone who dared to stand his path. Just ask Panthers receiver Ted Ginn.
Struggled Against the Run
The Saints are one of the very worst against the run; the Panthers are one of the best run outfits in the league. This scenario played itself out in the first meeting where the Panthers generated 128 yards on just 23 carries—but they weren't able to take advantage of it due to getting down so fast.
For the Saints, it's the whole "chicken or the egg" thing (see, now I'm hungry!). When the Saints do great against the run, it's usually at the expense of the pass defense—and vice versa. If the Saints are unable to get off to a fast start, similar to the Rams game, stopping the run will be a major priority first and foremost.
If the Panthers are forced to beat the Saints strictly through the air, goodnight Irene! The Saints are your prototypical front-running team due to the finesse nature with which they operate. Make no mistake about it, even a killer—in a sports sense—like Mike Tyson drew that dubious distinction.
But just like the Saints, he needed ideal circumstances to perform at an elite level—circumstances that are now out of their control (e.g. home-field advantage).
Limited Explosive Plays by Cam Newton
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's longest play was only 19 yards in the first matchup. He's usually good for at least three 20-yard plays walking off the bus. The fact that it came through the air makes it that much more damning.
The Saints had an excellent plan to keep the dual-threat QB operating from the pocket. Defensive ends Junior Galette (three sacks) and Cam Jordan (two sacks) consistently collapsed the pocket, not allowing Newton to escape out the back door, so to speak. Newton was sacked five times in what was by far the best performance from a pass rush this season.
Galette and Jordan must maintain QB contain and not get pushed upfield. If they do, this puts the onus on linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne to keep Newton in their respective sights.
The Colston Factor
Saints receiver Marques Colston had by far his best game of the season in the first meeting. His nine-catch, 125-yard (two TDs) performance was reminiscent of the old days. You know, like, last season! He torched a poor Panthers secondary, which operated mostly out of a Cover 2 shell.
For the Saints to procure the elusive Lombardi Trophy, they need someone in addition to superstar tight end Jimmy Graham to take over a game. Teams have proven that if Graham goes away, the Saints go away.
For Colston to reach back into his bag of tricks and come up with that type of performance only further sealed the Panthers' fate. The Saints have no one in the secondary that can compete with Colston, so it was great to see him validate that notion.
With Brees throwing for 313 yards with four TDs—in the first matchup—there's no reason he can't duplicate that performance, especially if the line holds up. That's something Saints fans can't be too confident in.
Brown and right tackle Zach Strief were able to neutralize the best pass-rushing duo in the NFL, defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, while holding them to a half sack...total! Here's hoping a repeat of the previous matchup from the line, opposed to the monstrosity we saw against the Rams.