Saints Defense vs. Panthers Offense Preview

Can a New Orleans defense that has struggled with penalties and blown assignments come out of their bye with a strong performance against division rival Carolina?
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The New Orleans Saints return to action after a bye week, hosting the 3-3 Carolina Panthers this Sunday afternoon. New Orleans comes in with a 3-2 record, having won their last two games, while the Panthers are coming off a home loss to the Chicago Bears that snapped a three-game winning streak. 

The Saints defense ranks 8th in total yardage, giving up 337 yards per game, but 25th in points allowed at 30 points per contest. Even more concerning is the defense's inability to get off the field on 3rd downs, failures in the red zone, and poor play in the secondary. The Saints rank just 27th in 3rd down defense and dead last in red-zone defense.

Sep 27, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Green Bay Packers tight end Marcedes Lewis (89) catches a touchdown over New Orleans Saints cornerback Janoris Jenkins (20) and safety Malcolm Jenkins (27) during the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY

Sep 27, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Green Bay Packers tight end Marcedes Lewis (89) catches a touchdown over New Orleans Saints cornerback Janoris Jenkins (20) and safety Malcolm Jenkins (27) during the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY

New Orleans hosts a Carolina team that has scored over 30 points twice and is averaging 23 points per game. The Panthers rank 11th in total offense, averaging 383 yards per outing. First-year head coach Matt Rhule has had to implement his new system with a new quarterback, three new offensive linemen, and a new starting wideout. They’ve also been without one of the league's most productive offensive weapons, running back Christian McCaffrey, who has been sidelined since Week 2 with an injured ankle. 

Carolina has converted 44.4% of their 3rd down chances, 13th in the league, but are just 28th in red-zone percentage. New quarterback Teddy Bridgewater knows the Saints well, going up against their defense in practice for the last two years and leading the offense to a 5-0 record as a starter when Drew Brees was injured in 2019.

Here’s a closer look at what to expect when the New Orleans defense lines up across from the Carolina offense.

THE PASSING GAME

Saints corner back Marshon Lattimore breaks up a pass to Panthers receiver DJ Moore in the Mecedes-Benz Superdome. Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018 © SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network

Saints corner back Marshon Lattimore breaks up a pass to Panthers receiver DJ Moore in the Mecedes-Benz Superdome. Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018 © SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network

Opposing quarterbacks are completing 64% of their throws against the 18th ranked New Orleans pass defense, averaging 237 yards per game. Coming into their bye, only one team had given up more than the 15 touchdown passes thrown against the Saints. New Orleans has intercepted three passes, two of them in the opening week by S Marcus Williams and CB Janoris Jenkins. More troubling than the lack of turnovers are the penalties, breakdowns, and blown assignments that have plagued the secondary all season. 

Janoris Jenkins, who has been the team's most consistent defensive back, is expected back after missing two games with a shoulder injury. He and Marshon Lattimore form one of the league's better tandems of shutdown cornerbacks, but Lattimore had an inconsistent year. Safety Malcolm Jenkins and CB Patrick Robinson are heavily targeted by opposing passers with outstanding success.   The entire secondary must clean up communication issues and overall sloppy play that has led to several big plays.

Jan 7, 2018; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) avoids the tackle of New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (98) in the fourth quarter in the NFC Wild Card playoff football game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY

Jan 7, 2018; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) avoids the tackle of New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (98) in the fourth quarter in the NFC Wild Card playoff football game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY

New Orleans pressures the quarterback as well as any team in the league. The Saints have 13 sacks and 32 QB hits so far and are led by a deep rotation of defensive linemen upfront. Pro Bowl DE Cameron Jordan has just one sack and 4 pressures but has played well the last two games after a slow start. Fellow DE Marcus Davenport saw his first action of the year against the Chargers and disrupted several plays. 

Defensive tackles David Onyemata and Sheldon Rankins, who have combined for 3 sacks and 9 pressures, lead a deep unit that applies consistent interior pressure. Linebacker Demario Davis, who has also been outstanding in coverage, is a devastating Blitzer who has added 2 sacks and six QB pressures.

Oct 11, 2020; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5) passes the ball against the Atlanta Falcons during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 11, 2020; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5) passes the ball against the Atlanta Falcons during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Twenty-seven-year-old QB Teddy Bridgewater has completed 70.9% of his throws for 1,676 yards, with six touchdowns and five interceptions for a Carolina passing attack that ranks ninth in the NFL. Bridgewater's favorite target has been fifth-year WR Robby Anderson, added as a free agent this offseason. Anderson has caught 40 passes for a league-high 566 yards so far, scoring once, and has at least 99 yards receiving in four games this season. 

Anderson's running mate at wideout is third-year pro D.J. Moore, who has 27 receptions for 474 yards and a touchdown after a breakout campaign in 2019. Curtis Samuel, who has 19 receptions for 183 yards, is dangerous on a short reception because of his open-field running ability. The Saints have had problems containing tight ends, but Panthers starter Ian Thomas has just six catches for 39 yards so far, despite his athletic talents.

Dec 30, 2018; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers wide receiver DJ Moore (12) runs after a catch against the New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56) during the first quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY

Dec 30, 2018; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers wide receiver DJ Moore (12) runs after a catch against the New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56) during the first quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY

Carolina continues to have issues with pass protection, which has plagued them over the last several seasons. Bridgewater has been sacked 12 times and hit 26 times, often rushed on his pass attempts. The Carolina offensive line looks to regroup after an outing against the Bears where they surrendered 4 sacks and 6 hits on Bridgewater, who moves well but tends to sail passes when under pressure.

THE RUNNING GAME

Dec 29, 2019; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) is tackled by New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Demario Davis (56) and cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY

Dec 29, 2019; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) is tackled by New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Demario Davis (56) and cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY

The Saints have not allowed a 100-Yd rusher since Week 11 of the 2017 season, a span of 48 straight games. New Orleans ranks 6th against the run this year, giving up 100 yards per contest and holding three of their opponents under 100 yards. Athletic defensive tackles Onyemata, Rankins, Malcom Brown, Shy Tuttle, and undrafted rookie Malcolm Roach have done an excellent job at penetrating opposing backfields to short-circuit running plays, and the 3.6 yards per carry against them is third-best in the league. While the Saints defensive front controls the line of scrimmage, linebackers Davis and Alex Anzalone shoot open gaps for big stops and run down opposing backs sideline-to-sideline.

Oct 18, 2020; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5) hands the ball off to running back Mike Davis (28) in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY

Oct 18, 2020; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5) hands the ball off to running back Mike Davis (28) in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY

Carolina averages 117 yards per game on the ground, ranking 16th in the league. Without McCaffrey in the lineup the last four games, the Panthers have averaged 121 yards rushing. Journeyman Mike Davis, who is playing with his fourth team in six years, leads the Panthers with 272 yards and 2 scores on the ground while adding 32 receptions for 209 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air. Davis is a powerful but compact back at 5’9” 220-Lbs who runs with force between the tackles.

Nov 24, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport (92) and defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) and outside linebacker Demario Davis (56) celebrate after sacking Carolina Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen (7) during the fourth quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY

Nov 24, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport (92) and defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) and outside linebacker Demario Davis (56) celebrate after sacking Carolina Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen (7) during the fourth quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY

The Saints secondary hopes they will improve from early season performances that have been littered with blown assignments, poor communication, and crippling penalties. New Orleans will look to bring heavy pressure on their former teammate Bridgewater, hoping to cause him to force throws into coverage when they don't get him on the ground.  

Defensive end Cam Jordan, who has 9 sacks, 17 QB hits, and 14 tackles for loss in 18 career games against the Panthers, will lead the assault on Bridgewater. That dominance up front must also include shutting down Carolina's running game, forcing Bridgewater to beat them with a one-dimensional attack.