It’s beginning to sound like a broken record: The Carolina Panthers (1-4) played good, hard-nosed, exciting football on Sunday against the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints (4-1), but they were not quite good enough for the win.
The Panthers recovered from an early 10-0 first quarter deficit to take a 27-23 lead early in the fourth quarter, but were unable to keep the Saints out of the end zone on a methodical 13-play, 89-yard drive which lasted 6:16 and ended with a Drew Brees touchdown pass to running back Pierre Thomas with less than a minute to go in the game.
Though the Panthers could have won this game and appear to be on the brink of a breakthrough performance with a convincing win over a quality team, this week’s opponent proved to be just a little too good to overcome.
Final Score: Saints 30, Panthers 27
Here are my grades, by position, for the Carolina Panthers.
NFL.com Player Profile -- Cam Newton" target="_blank">Cam Newton recovered from an inauspicious start—an interception to the Saints’ Patrick Robinson on the game’s first play—to play well the rest of the game. The Saints converted the turnover into a touchdown three plays later and set the tone for a high-scoring game.
Though Newton’s 224 yards passing were well below his season average, the rookie quarterback had a productive Week 5, throwing for two touchdowns and rushing for 27 yards and another score.
Newton’s decision-making was solid after the first play and he continues to prove that he can play in the NFL. Newton showed great mobility in the pocket, only getting sacked once and making plays with his feet while continuing to look and throw the ball downfield.
Newton also ran the option play as well as I've ever seen it used in the NFL for a couple of big gains and the Panthers should keep it in their repertoire. This guy is a stud and if the season ended today, he would be a lock for NFL ROY honors.
RUNNING BACKS: A –
Week 5 was a banner week for the Panthers rushing attack. DeAngelo Williams led the way with nine carries for 115 yards and a touchdown to post the team’s first individual 100-yard rushing performance of the season as the Panthers outrushed the Saints, 162 to 101.
Williams set the tone for Carolina’s ground dominance on the Panthers’ second possession of the game with 13- and 18-yard gains on back-to-back carries, and he ran for a 69-yard touchdown on the option play later in the first half.
Jonathan Stewart chipped in with six carries for 20 yards and added a 13 yard reception out of the backfield.
If Williams can remain a home run threat throughout the season, and if Stewart can pile up yardage between the tackles, then opponents beware—the Double Trouble duo is back.
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: B
Smitty had one of the best catches of the season when he soared high over Saints defensive back Jabari Greer to snag a high Cam Newton pass at the 20-yard line, floated down like Prince from the Chappelle Show, disposed of Greer and jogged into the end zone.
Smith finished the game with three catches for 79 yards and Legedu Naanee added four grabs for 63 yards, though Naanee dropped a couple of catchable passes that will have the local sports jockeys clamoring again for Brandon LaFell as the No. 2 behind Smith.
Panthers tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey combined for six catches for 42 yards and an Olsen touchdown. Though they were outplayed by their fellow Miami Hurricanes alum, Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, the Panthers' duo from “The U” continue to serve as effective short to mid-range targets for Cam Newton when no one is open downfield. Also, Olsen seems to have a knack for finding the end zone.
Despite leaving some room for improvement, the receiving corps earned a passing grade.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B +
The Panthers offensive line played well as a unit and controlled the line of scrimmage against the Saints' front seven.
Jordan Gross, Ryan Kalil and company created the widest running lanes DeAngelo Williams has seen all year.
The line also protected Cam Newton well in the passing game and only allowed one sack on the afternoon, though they were called for a couple of damaging penalties—most notably Gross’ holding call on the final drive with the team trying to move the ball into field goal range.
Overall solid performance by the offensive line.
DEFENSIVE LINE: C +
The defensive line had perhaps its best game of the season against the run, but Charles Johnson and company failed to generate much of a pass rush as Greg Hardy recorded the unit’s only sack of Drew Brees on the final drive of the first half. The sack was Hardy's third of the season.
Brees had plenty of time to pass for most of the afternoon and seemed to have even more time than normal on third down, particularly in the fourth quarter when he converted several third downs.
Brees is already among the top five quarterbacks in the league, and if there is one thing opponents know they do not need to give him, it’s more time to look downfield for converting big plays.
Solid work by the guys up front, but not spectacular.
It is clear that James Anderson is the new leader of this unit following the season-ending injuries to the Panthers’ high profile linebackers, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis.
Anderson and Dan Connor made a couple of standout plays against the run early in the game, but they were effectively neutralized by the Saints passing attack once Brees and his receivers found their rhythm, which did not take long.
The usually stout Panthers linebacker corps made some noise early in the game but went virtually unnoticed most of the afternoon.
SECONDARY: B –
Boy oh boy did the Saints pick on Captain Munnerlyn. In the first half it seemed like nearly every Brees target was whomever was covered by the Panthers’ diminutive cornerback. Most of the passes were completions, but Captain tackled as surely as I have ever seen him tackle and he did not allow any big plays or touchdowns.
Brees spread the ball around to his arsenal of receivers, though his favorite target was tight end Jimmy Graham, who found enough open space in the Panthers’ defensive backfield to rack up eight catches for 129 of Drew Brees’ 359 passing yards.
Despite giving up so many yards through the air, the secondary—including Munnerlyn, Chris Gamble, Charles Godfrey and Jordan Pugh—broke up several passes and covered the receivers reasonably well. Unfortunately for the Panthers, they faced a different breed of passing game on Sunday which can only be matched by the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers.
Sherrod Martin had an interception, Munnerlyn sacked Brees once and Godfrey had an overall impressive game, which is why the secondary earns the highest mark among the defensive units.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C +
Special teams did not win this game for the Panthers, but then the punt team did not lose the game this week like they did against the Arizona Cardinals and the Chicago Bears, so that’s an improvement.
Jason Baker and the punt team effectively took the Saints’ Darren Sproles out of the punt return game by punting to the sidelines or into the end zone, and Olindo Mare booted every kickoff into the end zone for a touchback.
Armanti Edwards and Kealoha Pilares remain average as punt and kick returners for the Panthers, though Pilares did not have an opportunity to return any of the Saints' kickoffs as they all went through the end zone.
Overall, the Panthers' special teams played well and would have received a higher mark if they had not allowed the extra point to be blocked after the Panthers’ first touchdown of the game.
COACHING: B –
Head Coach Ron Rivera and his staff devised an intelligent and effective game plan for the Saints game. However there were a few decisions which left Panthers fans scratching their heads.
For instance, the Panthers called timeout with the clock running and three seconds to go in the first half when they had 12 men on the field, giving the Saints the chance to kick a field goal and add three points to their halftime lead.
The kick was good and the Saints ended up winning game by three points. Despite having an extra man on the playing field, the Panthers’ decision to call a timeout was highly questionable, as it appeared unlikely that the Saints had time to even snap the ball.
Carolina called another befuddling timeout with 30 seconds to go after an apparent first down catch by Legedu Naanee, giving the booth officials time to review the play and overturn the call on the field. The smarter play would have been to run to the line of scrimmage and spike the ball to stop the clock, though at first glance it appeared Naanee had made the catch, which he actually bobbled.
Finally, Panthers Offensive Coordinator Rob Chudzinski dialed up play call that led to Cam Newton throwing deep and incomplete to Smith on 3rd-and-2 midway through the fourth quarter when a three-yard first down play could have kept the ball out of Drew Brees’ hands for at least a few more minutes. Instead, the Panthers punted on fourth down and Brees led his team on the game-winning drive which left the Panthers with less than a minute remaining to attempt an unsuccessful comeback.
Overall, the Panthers played better and kept this game closer than most analysts predicted. However, Carolina's players, coaches and fans have had enough moral victories for the year and they are ready to start winning ball game now. Don't be surprised if they have a big win next week against their other NFC South rivals, the Atlanta Falcons.