New Orleans (4-7) is looking to snap a three-game losing streak, and playing in the familiar confines of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome should provide an edge, however slight, to coach Sean Payton’s struggling club.
The 11-0 Panthers, who defeated New Orleans 27-22 back in Week 3, are playing as well as any team in the league, and they pose significant challenges to the Saints on both sides of the ball.
Let’s take a look at some things New Orleans might do on offense and defense Sunday, as it attempts to take down the league’s only remaining unbeaten.
On paper, the matchup between the Saints offense and the Panthers defense should make for a fine battle of strength against strength.
After all, the New Orleans offense ranks No. 3 in the league and averages just over 400 yards per game. Statistics don’t tell the full story, however, and the Drew Brees-led unit has struggled as of late.
The Saints have scored a measly 20 points in their last two games combined, and they haven’t reached the end zone for six consecutive quarters and counting.
On Sunday, Brees and Co. will have to find a way to get back on track against a ferocious Carolina unit that ranks near the top of most defensive categories.
Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott commandeers an aggressive group that utilizes zone blitzes to wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines. The Panthers are stacked with talented defenders at all three levels, and New Orleans’ shaky offensive front will be hard-pressed to give Brees the time he needs without mixing some things up.
One possibility is for New Orleans to use the Panthers’ defensive aggression against them in the passing game. The Saints usually attempt to spread defenses out horizontally with quick throws into the flats, but this may not be the best course of action against Carolina’s speedy unit, which will be especially fast on the artificial turf of the Superdome.
Instead, the Saints should utilize more play action to attack the seams with short vertical throws. Given the Carolina linebackers' propensity to sell out to stop the run, Brees can use play action to catch Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis hugging the line of scrimmage, thereby burning them with some quick-hitting verticals to the tight ends.
Of course, in order to establish a play-action passing game, New Orleans will first have to run the football. Against Kuechly and Co., running between the tackles will likely be tough sledding, especially in the early going, but the Saints merely need to demonstrate a commitment to it.
Running back Mark Ingram only has 14 carries to his credit over the past two games, and New Orleans should at least make an attempt to get him more involved in the offense this week.
Plus, an adequate running game is a necessity if the Saints are to put together prolonged drives, thereby keeping Cam Newton and the Carolina offense on the sideline.
Another way to combat an aggressive defensive front is through the use of screens. The Saints certainly aren’t averse to throwing multiple screen passes to their running backs over the course of a game, and even though most teams prepare accordingly, screens could prove successful if called at the proper time on Sunday.
Trying to find ways in which the Saints' No. 31-ranked defense can have success against Newton and the Panthers offense may seem like an exercise in futility. It’s not impossible, however, for coordinator Dennis Allen’s group to force enough stops to make things interesting on Sunday.
First and foremost, the Saints will have to be fundamentally sound at all three levels. Their tackling must be solid throughout the contest, and they can’t afford to commit costly penalties before the snap and after the whistle.
As for defending Carolina’s personnel, it all starts with Newton. The Panthers quarterback and NFL MVP candidate can hurt defenses with his legs as well as his arm, and the Saints front seven will need all hands on deck to contain him.
When defending the Panthers’ masterfully executed read-option dive play, outside ‘backer Hau’oli Kikaha must be careful not to recklessly fly into the backfield and overshoot the play, as he did in the first meeting between the two teams.
This time around, the rookie will have to approach the mesh point between Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart with more caution and “slow-play” it in a more disciplined manner.
The versatile Newton, in addition to his ability to attack the edges with the zone read, can also work the defensive middle with power runs straight up the gut. Saints “Mike” linebacker Stephone Anthony, in addition to his responsibilities defending the traditional running game, will be called upon to read the play quickly, step up into the hole and make the tackle on the big quarterback when he comes up the middle.
New Orleans will also need a strong pass rush in order to have a chance in this one, and that means edge-rushers Kikaha and Cam Jordan will have to win their share of battles and be physical with Newton as often as possible.
In the secondary, the Saints’ primary objective will be to minimize the production of Greg Olsen. The Panthers tight end won’t blow anyone away with his speed or athleticism, but he’s an exceptional route runner who gets open on a consistent basis. He’s also a fierce competitor.
The Saints will likely play some zone in this one, but look for Allen to place cornerback Brandon Browner on Olsen in press-man coverage on a decent number of snaps. Browner has been a walking penalty for the better part of the season, but he held his own against Houston Texans star wideout DeAndre Hopkins a week ago, and he has the requisite physicality to knock Olsen off his routes.
Everything mentioned thus far will be rendered moot, however, if the Saints can’t slow down Stewart and the Panthers' downhill rushing attack. The 235-pound back has 832 rushing yards on the season, and Saints strong safety Kenny Vaccaro could play a primary role in preventing Stewart from getting big gains on first and second downs.
There’s no question the Saints will face a formidable challenge come Sunday afternoon. The Panthers are not only a complete team on both sides of the ball, but they appear to be improving with each passing week.
New Orleans may come out and feed off the energy of the Superdome crowd in the first half, but the Panthers aren’t exactly the most ideal defense to face when attempting to break out of a slump.
Brees and the offense won't be shut out of the end zone for a second straight week, but they don’t have enough playmakers to score consistently against Carolina.
On the other side of the ball, the Saints will need to play disciplined, mistake-free football for four quarters in order to have a chance. They haven’t done this all season long, and there’s nothing to indicate things will be different against Newton and the Panthers.
New Orleans may put up a fight for a half, but don’t look for this one to be close in the fourth quarter.
Panthers 31, Saints 14