Preview: Saints @ Panthers—Showdown Between 2008 NFC South Powers

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Preview: Saints @ Panthers—Showdown Between 2008 NFC South Powers

As a diehard Carolina Panthers fan, I have a grudge against the New Orleans Saints.  After Hurricane Katrina hit, the entire country fell in love with them.  I hated seeing all the media exposure the Saints got—and this media coverage was always slanted toward the Saints, too.  It sickened me.  I can see why they got so much sympathy—I'm not saying that the damage their city suffered should have gone unrecognized.  But it still annoyed the hell out of me.

Now the Saints irritate the hell out of me for another reason.  Every time we play them, one of two things come of it.  Either we barely win, often by a margin of seven points or less.  Or the Saints blow us out.   

The Saints have a seemingly impeccable passing attack, led by quarterback Drew Brees. Brees (and receiver Marques Colston) is essentially the Saints' entire offense, and he will be until running backs Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister can prove that they're worth something.

Last year Brees threw for 4,423 yards (2nd in the NFL), 28 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions on 440 (tops in the league) of 652 pass attempts. 

Much of the credit for Brees' impressive numbers should be given to the Saints' receivers. 

No.1 option Marques Colston received for 98 receptions, 1,202 yards, and 11 touchdowns in 2007.  All three figures were in the top 10 in the NFL.

No.2 target David Patten caught 54 receptions for 792 yards and three touchdowns last year in 16 games (five starts).

But as solid as Colston is and Patten will be soon, there's nobody under them on the depth chart.  As good as the starters should be, the Saints are thin at receiver.  Their receiver situation for this year reminds of the Panthers' situation of a year ago, except not as bad.

But the offensive line will compensate for the lack of depth at receiver.  All of this year's starters started last year for a line that allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL—16.  That's an average of one sack allowed per game (what a stretch figuring out that one was).

As long as the receivers can break free, Brees will be in good position to get them the ball quickly.

All of the above indicate that there is every reason for the Saints' passing game to be just as effective as last year, if not more so, despite the thinness of the receiving corps. 

There are a lot of questions about the Saints' running game, though.

Power back and starter Deuce McAllister has been plagued by injuries in the last three years.  Since 2005 McAllister has missed 25 games and 24 starts.

However, he's rushed for over 1,000 yards in every season in which he played at least 13 games. 

If McAllister can stay healthy, the Saints will have a solid rusher at their disposal. 

Third-year back Reggie Bush was drafted with the 2nd overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.  So far he has yet to even get close to living up to his top-five draft pick potential. 

In two seasons Bush has rushed for 1,146 yards and 10 touchdowns on 312 carries.  Those numbers would be great if they were achieved in one year.  If that's how this season goes, too, McAllister will have to take a large chunk of the carries. 

This means McAllister could become fatigued as the later part of the season progresses, but this shouldn't affect him this soon.

Until Bush proves he's not a bust and enhances the running game, the Saints will contine to rely almost exclusively on their dynamic passing attack.  Not that that's a bad thing.

But the Panthers defense won't be a pushover by any means. 

True, preseason play doesn't mean much in terms of wins and losses.  But it does matter in terms of how well a team plays.  And the Panthers starting defense didn't allow a single point in the three preseason games in which it played.  To put it simply, it dominated. 

Opposing quarterbacks were always trying to get the ball out more quickly or get away from the pass rush.

Opposing running backs never had anywhere to go. 

Opposing offenses went 3-and-out countless times. 

The underrated defensive line could get lots of pressure on Brees and shut down McAllister and Bush when they run up the middle.  It all depends on how it reacts to a top-tier offensive line putting it all on the line in a crucial division game that could have key playoff implications later on.

The linebackers, led by second-year MLB Jon Beason, will be able to run down Bush when he runs outside or off the tackles—he won't just be able to outrace these guys like he did in college.

The secondary will likely allow 175 yards through the air, but it won't be allow a monstrous amount of pass yardage.    

The only thing I'm truly worried about stopping is tight end Jeremy Shockey, who came to the Saints in an off-season trade with the Giants for 2009 second and fifth-round draft picks.  

Receiving tight ends in the NFL can be extremely difficult to contain if their reps are balanced well with the rest of the offense because of their size, and the Panthers in particular have had great difficulty defending them in the past.  Shockey has proven himself to an excellent receiving tight end in prior years.

In his best season, 2002—ironically his rookie season—he made 74 receptions for 894 yards and two touchdowns.  Over his six-year career Shockey has accumulated 371 catches for 4,228 yards and 27 touchdowns. 

 

The Panthers offense looks revitalized and vastly improved from last year. 

DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the feature backs in an extremely run-heavy offense, will be the focus of the Panthers attack this year.  From what I've seen of these two together in the preseason, they could very well turn out to be one of the best rushing duos in the NFC, maybe even throughout the NFL. 

Williams has rushed for 188 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries in limited action in three preseason games this year.  His cuts have looked sharp as a tack, his visibility has been exceptional, and his speed, quickness, agility, and acceleration have been remarkable.  He is, without question, ready to take on the starting role.

Stewart has run for 103 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries in two preseason games.  However, if I break these numbers down a bit, Stewart ran behind the pedestrian backup offensive line in his first preseason game.  This led to his greatly underwhelming debut, in which he had four carries for three yards.   

In his second preseason game, in which he ran behind the starting offensive line, he rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.  The offensive line made a huge difference.

This indicates that Stewart will probably be just as good in the regular season as he was while running behind the first-team offensive line in that second preseason game.

The passing game should only advance Carolina's offense.

By this point in the season, quarterback Jake Delhomme and his receivers should be in sync with each other.

And this time around, he won't just be in sync with star wide-out Steve Smith, either. 

This off-season the Panthers went out into the free agent market and signed four-year player DJ Hackett and veteran Muhsin Muhammad to two-year contracts. 

There are concerns with both guys.  Hackett's short career has already been marred by continuous injuries, and Muhammad's age could be problematic.

But if used well and kept healthy, these two additions will really improve Carolina's air attack.

In addition, Dwayne Jarrett, a former 2007 second-round pick out of Southern Cal, has improved significantly since his awful rookie season.  In three preseason games he received for 13 receptions and 139 yards.  Many of these catches were made in heavy traffic, too.

Field general Jake Delhomme, whose off-season elbow surgery certainly appears to have improved his game, will be throwing passes to these targets.

Last season, even though he suffered a devastating elbow injury that only allowed him to play all of the first two full games and part of the third before missing the rest of the season, Delhomme threw 55 completions for 624 yards and eight touchdowns to only one interception.  These figures earned him a 111.8 passer rating.

 

The Saints will have to survive solely on their offense—their defense is third-tier.

The New Orleans D has a decent front seven, led by defensive linemen Will Smith and Hollis Thomas.

Smith, an end, accumulated 66 tackles and seven sacks last season.

Thomas, a nosetackle, compiled 50 tackles and three sacks last year.

Left outside linebacker Scott Fujita is an excellent tackler—he brought down the ball-carrier 95 times in 2007.

Jonathan Vilma, who will be entering his fifth season in the pros, will be hungry to prove that last year's performance, in which he only had 43 tackles in seven starts, was a fluke. 

The secondary is sorely lacking in talent, though. 

The Saints' only quality defensive back is SS Roman Harper, whose 90 tackles last year tied for sixth in the league.

Furthermore, last year the Saints were 30th in the league pass defense at 245.2 yards per game.  Only two changes have been made to that terrible defense, and they don't look like they were smart moves, either.

If the Panthers' running game doesn't work, it should still be easy to generate offense against the Saints' pathetic secondary. 

 

The X-factor in this game will be the play of the Saints' running backs.  If they produce, the already-dangerous passing game gets freed up, allowing the Saints to use more variety in their play-calling and become more unpredictable.

However, if the Panthers defense stops them cold, it won't be long before the Panthers defense is backing off the line of scrimmage and playing the pass, shutting down the supposedly-dynamic passing attack of the Saints.

In the first scenario the Saints have the better chance of winning.

In the second situation the Panthers are the favorites.

Here's hoping the second scenario is the one we end up with come game-time.

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