The Carolina Panthers have had many important matchups with the New Orleans Saints since the two became division rivals in 2002. This weekend’s game will be no different, with a tight race early on in the NFC South.
The Panthers are tied with the Falcons and Buccaneers atop the division with a 4-2 record, while the Saints are one game back at 3-3. The teams have taken different routes to get to their respective records; the Panthers on the ground and the Saints through the air.
The Panthers' defense has come through and picked up some of the slack from a productive yet sometimes inconsistent offense, while the Saints have the number-one passer in the NFL in Drew Brees taking their snaps.
Only one of the Saints' three wins has been close, defeating Tampa Bay by four in the opener and winning their other two games by a combined 45 points.
All three of their losses have come in the closing minutes, with a combined margin of defeat of 10 points. The main matchup to watch in this contest will be the Saints' prolific offense against the solid-yet-shaky Panthers defense.
Brees is off to the start of a career year. He has thrown for 1,993 yards and 12 touchdowns so far, and completed 71 percent of his passes to rank second in the league behind Brett Favre at 71.3 percent.
He averages 332.2 yards per game and holds a 105.0 overall quarterback rating; also second best in the league. Perhaps Brees’ most dangerous weapon has been the deep ball, leading the league with nine completions of 40 or more yards; tied with San Diego’s Philip Rivers.
The ability of the Saints to move the ball down the field through the air, though, has not opened up the running game. The Saints average only 87.5 yards per game on the ground, good for only 25th in the league.
Reggie Bush has turned into more of a receiver in the Saints high-octane offense than the running back he was heralded as coming into the league. He averages right at 100 yards per game between rushing (39.8) and receiving (60.2) with five total touchdowns. Bush has also been dangerous on special teams, scoring on three punt returns, including two in their Monday Night Football matchup with Minnesota two weeks ago.
Brees and company will be facing a Carolina defense that leaves a lot of questions to be answered but puts up relatively solid numbers. The Panthers rank second in the league in passing yards allowed per game, giving up only 158.8 yards through the air.
This is not always indicative of how the games go for Carolina. Several times throughout the year, the Panthers have been giving up completions underneath the safeties and over the linebackers, allowing short to medium distance gains; often times for first downs.
That doesn’t exactly chalk up a lot of yardage for the opposition, but allows them to continue drives. The Panthers are allowing 105.7 yards per game on the ground, despite only having allowed one 100-yard rusher so far this season.
They have held opponents to only seven total touchdowns this year; five through the air and two on the ground. A key reason that they are exposed at times is their inability to force turnovers.
They rank 21st in interceptions, with only three, and 11th in fumble recoveries, with only four. This keeps the defense on the field longer than most units, and also doesn’t give the Panthers the luxury of that tell-tale change of momentum that a big turnover provides.
In order for the Panthers to come out on top this Sunday, they will have to keep Brees in check. The pass rush of the Panthers will have to do better than the 10 sacks they have notched so far. Julius Peppers could make the biggest case for a big contract in this week’s game if he can get to Brees and disrupt this well-oiled machine.
The Panthers second-string defense must pick up where the first string leaves off, especially up front.
Charles Johnson has been rather impressive thus far, and is due for a breakout game. The linebackers for the Panthers will be charged with the task of keeping Bush from running rampant on screens and underneath passes; his trademark this season. Jon Beason will have his hands full trying to direct the defense to match up with Bush, but he will have to produce if the Panthers want to keep the Saints offense at bay.
If the Panthers can get the Saints to move their game from the air to the ground, the momentum will shift heavily in favor of the Panthers. Rookie free safety Charles Godfrey will have his biggest challenge Sunday against Brees’ deadly accurate deep ball. He and fellow safety Chris Harris will no doubt be tested by Brees’ cannon arm.
Cornerbacks Chris Gamble, Ken Lucas, and nickel back Richard Marshall must all be spot on with their coverages or Brees will not hesitate to exploit them.
Basically, the Panthers have to be solid and tight with everything in their defense, or this Saints unit will find their weaknesses and prey on them all afternoon, putting added pressure on a Panthers offense who managed just three points last week against Tampa Bay.
Although their defense allows just 16.2 points per game, their offense scores only 26.7; a stat that includes a 34-0 drubbing of Kansas City and a 24-9 dismantling of Atlanta.
Only the game will tell how this matchup will pan out, but the Saints ‘O’ against the Panthers ‘D’ will be the matchup to watch and will likely be the deciding factor.