Panthers-Saints: A Must-Win for Both Teams
The Saints (3-3) enter this game having beaten the Buccaneers, 49ers, and Raiders, and lost to the Redskins, Vikings, and Broncos. It's worth noting that the Saints haven't won outside of New Orleans this year.
The Panthers (4-2) come into this game having beaten the Chargers, Falcons, Bears, and Chiefs, and lost to the Vikings and Buccaneers. The Panthers haven't lost at home yet this year. Furthermore, the Panthers have outscored opponents 78-26 at Bank of America Stadium.
Drew Brees, who has been keeping the Saints from falling apart at the seams so far this year, will likely get receiving threats Marques Colston and Jeremy Shockey back this week. Both had limited participation in practice today and are listed as probable.
Even without his top two targets, Brees has kept the Saints in contention in the NFC South because of Reggie Bush's emergence as a Brian Westbrook-esque all-purpose yardage player, in addition to his own leadership and incredible ability to throw the perfect deep ball. He will only get better with Colston and Shockey back.
However, the Panthers' suffocating pass defense, ranked No. 2 in the league, could be enough to slow even this pass attack down.
Part of the reason for the Panthers' pass defense's high ranking is their talented secondary, but the main reason for their great pass defense is defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac.
His agonizingly stubborn playcalling tendencies lean heavily towards protecting against the deep ball, which the Saints absolutely love to throw and have the most success with. Don't be surprised if the Panthers shut down—or at least greatly reduce—the effectiveness of the Saints' pass attack.
This matchup between the Saints' pass offense and the Panthers' pass defense will be an epic one.
As for the New Orleans run offense, I don't expect it to be much of an issue. The Panthers may only be ranked 15th in the league in rush defense, and they may have allowed Bucs RB Warrick Dunn to run for 115 yards last week, but they've held L.T., Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson, Michael Turner, and Larry Johnson to under 100 yards rushing.
That's a stout rush defense if ever there was one.
The Panthers have been a highly ironic offensive team this year.
They made a lot of moves in the offseason to bolster the ineffective rushing attack from 2007, including bulking up on the offensive line and drafting power back Jonathan Stewart. They also brought back receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who was released by the Bears. But the running game was what the front office really focused on improving.
Yet, at this point in the season, the Panthers' pass offense has been superior to the rush offense. The passing game ranks 14th in the league, while the rushing game ranks 19th in the league. This week should be no different, given one thing.
The Saints rank 21st in the NFL in pass defense. Most of that is because they can't defend the deep ball. New Orleans' pass "D" has allowed a league-worst 21 pass completions of 20 yards or more. That's as bad as it gets before you hit Detroit Lions territory.
Because of the Saints' difficulty of handling long passes, look for receivers Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad to have field days, but Smith in particular, due to his ability to create separation for longer plays with his breakneck speed.
The battle between the Panthers' rush offense and the Saints' rush defense is a toss-up. If anything, the Saints have the advantage because they've held their last two opponents to a combined 2.69 yards per carry. This run defense is stifling right now.
There's no reason why this trend won't continue, as the Panthers have two starting offensive linemen—center Ryan Kalil and right tackle Jeff Otah—out with injuries this week. That means another week of unpredictability and player shuffling on the offensive line, and the result should be a weak Panthers run offense.
This game will certainly be hotly contested. The Panthers need this win to stay in the race for first place in the division, and the Saints need this win to avoid digging themselves into a hole that they'll be trying to make up until December.
As if the division implications weren't enough to put this contest in the "Game of the Week" tier, it will be an ultimate battle of potent pass offense against suffocating pass defense.
It doesn't get any better than this. One of the reasons we love the NFL is because there are potentially epic games like this one every week.
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