The NFC South is shaping up to be one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL. Both the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints realize that there is minimal margin for error. This Sunday's showdown between the two rivals at Bank of America Stadium carries considerable significance for a mid-October matchup. The contest will be a chess match of strength versus strength. The Saints bring the NFL's most productive passing attack and second-ranked offense into Charlotte, with the Panthers countering with a formidable defense that has quietly surrendered the second-fewest passing yards and stands third overall in total yards allowed.
New Orleans has had no running game so far this season. Carolina, although not creating the turnover, has done a fine job in holding down the opponent’s passing attack. But the Panthers have not played “passing teams” so far either. Look for the matchup of Saints OC Jonathan Goodwin on Panther DT Maake Kemoeatu. Kemoeatu is a massive inside presence (6’5″ 345 lbs), but if Goodwin can cut him off and control lateral flow, the Saint backs might find some inside run room (pushing 5 yards per carry by past opponents on Carolina). By contrast, the Saints are last in the League when attacking straight up the gut. RB Deuce McAllister, in a similar role that he played versus Oakland, would be well served in the New Orleans game plan. With obvious emphasis on stopping the Muhammad/Smith duo, Carolina will look to find TEs Dante Rosario (15 receptions, 166 yards, 11.1 average & 1 TD) and Jeff King (9 for 75 yards) as outlets to their passing game. Rosario and King can both turn the big play when given the chance and Delhomme will need an alternate target to offset the attention his WRs will get.
Carolina’s offense has thrived off the big play for most of the first half of this season. The Panthers won’t dominate an opponent with time of possession, they are one of the poorer teams in converting third downs, they struggle in the red zone, they are not an authentic a ball-control offense, and they have average with drives of 10 or more plays. What they can do is spread the ball around to a number of different receivers (Muhammad, Smith and Hackett), find the outlet to the TE (Rosario and King), or dump off to the RB (Williams). This has netted a big-play threat to opponents in both the run and pass game. QB Jake Delhomme returned from Tommy John surgery in solid fashion until the Tampa 2 forced three picks last Sunday. Delhomme had done an admirable job up until that point in directing the Carolina offense to 114 points over 5 games. The turnover bug on the road is never a healthy thing to catch as the Bucs held the Panthers to 3 of 12 on 3rd down, 2.0 yards per carry and forced Delhomme into his worst completion percentage on the season (51.28%). Tampa held the ball almost a full 10 minutes longer than Carolina.
Delhomme will next shoot straight at the Saints’ suspect secondary. New Orleans is tender to the big-play pass and has surrendered 58 receptions over 10+ yards, another 21 over 20+ yards (ranks dead last in the NFL). Opponents have hit the Saints for 21 quick-strike drives (4 or less plays). The problem lies on first down. New Orleans struggles to slow down the run on 1st (52.6% over 4 yards), opening up a number of options on 2nd.
Carolina has averaged just about 4 yards per carry on 1st and has shown good balance overall between run and pass. Opponents go after the Saints deep (early and often), especially to the middle of the field. Look for Carolina to use the size of Muhsin Muhammad and the speed of Steve Smith to create the big play deep. Both receivers are averaging about 15.0+ yards per catch and present the vertical threat.
Defensively the Panthers will need to slow down the high-powered passing game of the New Orleans offense. The Saints are the only team averaging over 300+ passing yards. They have the most pass plays of 20+ yards, lead the League in 3rd and long conversions, have 28 quick-strike drives, have scored 172 points and just about go up and down the field at will. Brees enjoys plenty of time in the pocket and is seeing the field as well as he ever has in his career. Fifteen different receivers have at least 2 receptions. It was a loss to Washington that painted the blueprint for slowing down the Saints QB: pressure.
Carolina’s DE Julius Peppers on New Orleans’s LOT Jammal Brown should become an entertaining matchup. Brown has 3 holding calls and one sack against him, while Peppers leads the Panthers with 3 sacks over 6 games. If Peppers can generate some heat off the edge, it could benefit a Panthers secondary that has struggled to turn the pick this season (3). Carolina is also one of the better teams creating pressure off the blitz, so look for an extra man or two to potentially make a difference against Brees (85.11 rating vs blitz (17th).
The Silver Fox Forecast: Saints 33 Panthers 30
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