Sunday when they host the 3-3 Carolina Panthers. The 3-2 Saints were beginning to click on offense before the off week, even without All-Pro WR Michael Thomas, who may now return after missing four games with an ankle injury.
New Orleans has averaged 30.6 points per game and ranks 13th in total yardage, racking up 380 yards per outing, and their 48.4% 3rd down conversion rate ranks fourth.
The Saints take on an 11th ranked Carolina defense that gives up 23.5 points and 340 yards per game. The Panthers have forced 9 turnovers, but their 50.7% 3rd down rate ranks only 29th in the NFL. Carolina has held their last four opponents under 24 points and has played better than many expected defensively, despite the offseason retirement of All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Here’s how the Saints offense matches up against the defense of the Panthers.
THE PASSING GAME
After early struggles, the Saints passing attack has rebounded to average 263 yards per game through the air, 12th in the league. Those struggles created speculation about a decline in 41-Yr old QB Drew Brees and his ability to get the ball down the field or make the necessary throws to beat defenses.
Brees has completed 71% of his passes with 9 touchdowns and 3 interceptions and has thrown for at least 280 yards in three of the last four games. He's done it without record-breaking All-Pro WR Michael Thomas, who has missed the previous four games with an ankle injury but could be back in the lineup on Sunday despite a hamstring injury. Without Thomas, running back Alvin Kamara has been an even bigger part of the passing game.
Kamara leads the team with 38 receptions for 395 yards and three scores and has nearly single-handedly carried the offense at times. Early in the year, the New Orleans wide receivers were not getting separation down the field. Without Thomas, this contributed to the struggles of the passing attack.
Offseason free-agent pickup WR Emmanuel Sanders got off to a slow start. Now he seems to have a firm grasp of Payton's complex offensive system. Sanders has 26 catches for 304 yards and two scores this season, but 18 receptions for 215 yards in the last two games.
Third-year WR Tre'Quan Smith is finally developing into a reliable target for Brees and has 16 receptions for 194 yards and two scores. The emergence of undrafted rookie WR Marquez Callaway and open field skills of All-Pro kick returner Deonte Harris gives the offense a deeper receiving corps than they've had in years.
Veteran Pro Bowl TE Jared Cook, who has 11 catches for 166 yards and 2 scores in four games, provides Brees with yet another weapon; a downfield mismatch that is too big for most defensive backs and too athletic for most linebackers.
Another reason for Brees' early struggles was uncharacteristic pass protection breakdowns upfront, especially along the interior offensive line. Brees has been sacked 7 times but has been hit 25 times and hurried while passing several times.
Tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead are an elite duo, and second-year C Erik McCoy is having an outstanding year, but all three have been beaten in critical moments.
The Saints look to get better play from their guards Andrus Peat, Nick Easton, and rookie 1st round choice Cesar Ruiz, who struggled with interior rushers but have played better over the last two games.
Carolina ranks 7th against the pass, allowing opposing passers to complete 67% of their throws and allowing 219 yards per game through the air. The Panthers have generated more pressure on the quarterback in recent weeks but have only five sacks on the year.
They've gotten no sacks, and just 2 QB hits from the entire defensive tackle position, despite the addition of 7th overall draft pick Derrick Brown. Defensive end Brian Burns (2 sacks, 7 QB hits, 6 tackles for loss) is the team’s best defensive player, and Marquis Haynes has gotten some pressure from the other edge.
Nevertheless, the Panthers have produced little pressure from other players with rookie DE Yetur Gross-Matos on injured reserve.
Carolina has often dropped extra players back in coverage rather than blitzing but has been susceptible to underneath routes. Cornerbacks Donte Jackson, Rasul Douglas, and rookie Troy Pride are athletic and physical, and the Panthers hope to get former New Orleans starting CB Eli Apple back in the lineup to face his old team.
Rookie safety Jeremy Chinn is an exciting prospect and teams with veteran Tre Boston and Juston Burris to give Carolina a capable trio of safeties. Linebackers Shaq Thompson and Tahir Whitehead are good athletes, but both are vulnerable when asked to play man coverage.
The Panthers have 4 interceptions this season, two by Donte Jackson, and have allowed four players at least 85 receiving yards in six games.
THE RUNNING GAME
New Orleans owns the league's 18th ranked running attack, averaging 115 yards per game and 4.1 yards per attempt. Alvin Kamara leads the squad with 281 rushing yards and 4 scores, averaging 4.6 yards per rush. Fellow RB Latavius Murray provides a lethal 1-2 punch on the ground, picking up 218 yards and scoring twice.
New Orleans has struggled on 3rd and short situations in some games because of predictable play-calling and poor execution at the line of scrimmage. The Saints have one of the league's most physical offensive lines but have abandoned their commitment to the run in some games this year. Look for that to change coming off the bye.
Carolina has the league's 18th ranked run defense, giving up 122 yards per game, but only five teams are worse than the 4.9 yards per carry that opposing rushers have averaged against the Panthers. Linebackers Shaq Thompson and Tahir Whitehead are active but undersized, often getting overwhelmed by offensive linemen. Carolina rookie safety Jeremy Chinn has been terrific against the run.
Still, the lack of push by the Panthers defensive line allows opposing rushers to get to the second level quickly. Derrick Brown is playing better at defensive tackle, but without injured Kawann Short, opponents have pushed around the Panthers at the point of attack. So far this season, four running backs have picked up at least 85 yards against them.
Drew Brees has averaged 290 yards passing in 25 games against the Panthers as New Orleans quarterback, throwing for 50 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. Carolina has had its best success against Brees when they've pressured him inside, but the Panthers no longer have their once intimidating corps of defensive tackles.
Few players on the Panthers defense other than Brian Burns have consistently pressured opposing passers. Expect Burns to be matched-up against either Armstead or Ramczyk.
If Carolina sits back in coverage, Brees could pick them apart underneath with shorter throws to Kamara, Cook, and his wideouts. If the Panthers blitz, then the New Orleans wideouts will be challenged to create plays down the field against a Panthers secondary that’s been vulnerable to big plays.
Carolina's defense has been bullied in the running game all season. Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray are primed for a productive afternoon against the Panthers. New Orleans coach Sean Payton must stay patient with his rushing attack, which would further open up opportunities in the passing game. Rushing success will be even more crucial if Michael Thomas is again unavailable after suffering a hamstring injury in practice earlier this week.