Panthers vs. Saints: New Orleans Grades, Notes and Quotes

Zane BrownContributor IIIDecember 7, 2015

Panthers vs. Saints: New Orleans Grades, Notes and Quotes

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    The New Orleans Saints took the unbeaten Carolina Panthers to the wire Sunday afternoon, but coach Sean Payton's club eventually fell, 41-38, in an NFC South divisional clash.

    New Orleans (4-8) dropped its fourth consecutive game and its second straight at home, and it now enters the final quarter of the season in last place in the NFC South.

    Meanwhile, Carolina (12-0) has clinched its third straight divisional title with a month left to play, and the Panthers remain the NFL’s only undefeated team.

    The Saints got on the board first, as Drew Brees hit tight end Benjamin Watson for a 14-yard touchdown pass off play action. The first-quarter scoring play marked the Saints’ first trip to the end zone in seven quarters, and it appeared to light a fire under coordinator Dennis Allen’s defense.

    New Orleans forced turnovers on two of the Panthers’ next three offensive snaps, and Carolina turned it over on three of its next four possessions.

    After Delvin Breaux picked off Cam Newton for the first New Orleans takeaway, Saints kicker Kai Forbath missed a 38-yard field-goal attempt.

    The Saints defense was relentless in its effort, however, and linebacker Stephone Anthony delivered a huge play on Carolina’s next possession. After ripping the football straight out of the arms of Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart, the rookie then returned it all the way to the house to help give New Orleans a 14-0 lead.

    The Panthers came roaring back, however, and a five-yard touchdown run by Stewart just before the half had all but knotted up the score. Saints defensive tackle Kevin Williams blocked the ensuing extra-point kick, and it was returned for two points by Anthony.

    New Orleans took a 16-13 lead into the locker room, but the offenses would pick up the pace in a big way during the second half.

    The two teams combined to score 50 points in the third and fourth quarters, as the lead changed hands five more times.

    After the Saints marched 88 yards to take a 38-34 lead with just over five minutes to go, Newton and the Panthers answered with a 75-yard drive that took four minutes off the clock and ended with a touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery.

    Brees and Co. took over with just a minute remaining, but the Saints were unable to mount a final scoring drive.

    The two quarterbacks in the contest combined to throw for eight touchdowns, and the two offenses piled up just over 830 yards.

    Penalties proved to be a big issue for New Orleans all game long. The Saints were penalized for over 100 yards, as flags negated several of their positive plays.

    Continue reading for a closer look at this Week 13 matchup.

Grades

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    Saints WR Brandin Cooks
    Saints WR Brandin CooksSean Gardner/Getty Images

    Quarterback: B-

    Brees completed 24 of 42 passes against one of the league’s toughest defenses, and he tossed three touchdown passes in a losing effort.

    The Saints signal-caller helped reignite an offense that had lost its rhythm over the past couple of weeks. With the Panthers scoring almost at will in the second half, Brees resurrecting the New Orleans air attack was crucial to the Saints, as they attempted to hang in and make a game of it.

    He was far from perfect, however, tossing an interception on a deep ball early in the fourth quarter and misfiring on other throws over the course of the game.

    Running Back: B-

    New Orleans found the going tough against Carolina’s vaunted run defense, as the Saints only managed 70 yards on the ground.

    Mark Ingram handled the heavy lifting, and he finished with 56 yards and just 12 carries, including the go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown scamper from 14 yards out.

    C.J. Spiller, meanwhile, was again a non-factor, as the Saints sparingly used the versatile back. An accomplished receiver out of the backfield, Spiller only caught one pass for no gain, and he didn’t receive a single carry.

    Wide Receiver/Tight End: B

    The New Orleans receiving corps played a big hand in the Saints' second-half offensive surge, as Brandin Cooks enjoyed a big day.

    The second-year wideout lined up in the slot for numerous snaps, thereby avoiding Panthers No. 1 cover man Josh Norman on several of the Saints' big gains through the air. Cooks finished with six receptions for 104 yards, including the 54-yard scoring pass that put the Saints back in the game late in the third quarter.

    Another second-year wide receiver, former undrafted free agent Brandon Coleman, filled in for the injured Willie Snead and had a breakout game. Coleman hauled in four passes for 73 yards, and he scored his second NFL touchdown on a 24-yard catch early in the fourth quarter, as Brees delivered a perfectly thrown ball to beat the Panthers zone.

    Offensive Line: B-

    Despite a major change in the lineup, the Saints offensive line demonstrated marked improvement from last week’s abysmal performance.

    With starter Jahri Evans out, left guard Tim Lelito slid over to man Evans’ right guard slot, while rookie Andrus Peat started at left guard.

    The Saints turned in a respectable showing against a formidable Panthers front seven. Brees was sacked twice and roughed up on occasion, but he received respectable pass protection over the course of 42 attempts.

    Defensive Line: D

    Newton had another huge day for Carolina, hurting the Saints with both his arm and his legs.

    The Panthers signal-caller finished his productive day with 380 offensive yards and five touchdown passes, and New Orleans pass-rushers hit him just three times. As a runner, he gained the edge on the Saints numerous times, as the New Orleans defensive front was unable to make a major impact.

    Defensive end Cam Jordan broke free and sacked Newton once, but his overall impact on the game ended up being quite minimal.  

    Linebacker: B

    The linebacking corps didn’t fare much better in its efforts to keep Newton in check, although one New Orleans backer turned in an outstanding performance.

    Anthony’s strip of Stewart and subsequent touchdown run electrified the home crowd at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. In addition to his touchdown, the 2015 first-round pick racked up 10 tackles, while James Anderson led the way for New Orleans with 11.

    It was another New Orleans linebacker, however, who delivered the hit of the game.

    With Newton surging toward the goal line early in the third, reserve linebacker Michael Mauti lowered the boom on the big Carolina quarterback, knocking him out of bounds just shy of the end zone.

    The Panthers went on to score a few plays later, but Mauti’s pop on Newton served proper notice that the visitors would be in for a fight in their bid to remain undefeated.

    Defensive Back: C-

    Breaux reaffirmed his status as New Orleans’ most promising young defensive back, as he snagged an interception and raced 22 yards deep into Carolina territory. Breaux appeared to suffer a hamstring injury later on, however, and Brian Dixon replaced him. Dixon had his ups and downs in pass coverage.

    Strong safety Kenny Vaccaro played a key role in the Saints holding Stewart to under four yards per carry, and he also recovered a Greg Olsen fumble.

    The Saints secondary experienced some breakdowns in coverage, however, and the group was unable to overcome the poor performance of Brandon Browner.

    The New Orleans cover man once again was a liability in coverage, as he drew multiple penalty flags, thus costing the Saints big yards on numerous occasions.

    Special Teams: C

    Forbath followed up Breaux’s interception by missing a 38-yard field goal, and the Saints special teams got off to a rocky start.

    Anthony redeemed the special teams units with his two-point conversion return off a Carolina extra-point attempt, which New Orleans defensive tackle Kevin Williams blocked.

    Punter Thomas Morstead received an extensive workout, as he totaled over 200 yards on five punts and landed two of them inside the 20.

    Coaching: B-

    Unlike their two previous outings, the Saints played with great effort and intensity Sunday, and they gave the unbeaten Panthers all they wanted.

    Scheme-wise, the New Orleans coaching staff called an aggressive game, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

    In their second game under new coordinator Dennis Allen, the Saints went after Newton with an aggressive blitz package. Although they weren’t successful in getting to the quarterback often, they were able to force some turnovers, which is a step in the right direction following a couple of awful defensive performances.

    New Orleans could have devoted more attention to Olsen, however, as the tight end often went unchecked off the line and finished with nine catches for 129 yards.

Saints Hurt by Costly Penalties

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    Panthers WR Jerricho Cotchery (No. 82)
    Panthers WR Jerricho Cotchery (No. 82)Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    Penalties have been a thorn in the Saints’ side all season long, and they again proved to be a major hurdle for New Orleans on Sunday.

    Whether it was an after-the-whistle penalty on Vaccaro that negated a big defensive play by Breaux, a holding call on Senio Kelemete that brought back a Saints first down or one of numerous penalties on Browner, New Orleans repeatedly shot itself in the foot.

    The Panthers committed their share of errors, too, and they would have been flagged for more late in the contest had Payton gotten his way. By the time the dust settled, however, the Saints had collected 11 flags for 104 yards in penalties.

    Keeping the mistakes to a minimum was one of the keys for New Orleans heading into this one, and by drawing such a high number of flags, the Saints once again put themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

Anthony Comes Up with Big Plays

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    Saints LB Stephone Anthony
    Saints LB Stephone AnthonySean Gardner/Getty Images

    There haven’t been many positives for the New Orleans defense this season, but against Carolina on Sunday, Saints fans had something to get excited about on the defensive side of the ball.

    Anthony’s takeaway from Stewart and subsequent touchdown run opened up a two-score lead for New Orleans in the early going, and it wasn’t the only big play the rookie would deliver.

    His two-point play in the second quarter was the first two-point conversion return after a blocked extra-point kick in NFL history. This past offseason, the league added a new rule allowing for such a play.

Sean Payton, on the Saints Getting Two Early Turnovers

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    Saints CB Delvin Breaux
    Saints CB Delvin BreauxBill Feig/Associated Press/Associated Press

    In addition to minimizing their mistakes, the Saints needed to come out on top in the turnover category if they were to have any shot at upending the Panthers.

    While the penalty flags rained down freely, New Orleans managed to come out on top in the turnover department. The Saints forced two turnovers in the first quarter and three in the first 21 minutes of the game.

    Payton discussed the turnover battle after the game, and he was quoted as follows on NewOrleansSaints.com:

    We felt it was going to be an important statistic. As long as I’ve been here, 10 years, the turnover stat against Carolina is a big deal. They are playing well this year with it. They are first in the league with it (entered Sunday leading the NFL in turnover margin, plus-16) and we felt it would be a big number. The ball security would be premium. We were able to make some plays and get out to a lead.

    It isn’t often that a team wins the turnover battle 3-1 and still loses the game, but that’s precisely what happened to the Saints on Sunday.

    New Orleans put forth an admirable effort in earning a first-half lead, but in the end, Carolina was the better team, and the Saints needed more big playsand fewer penaltiesin order to score the upset.

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