Saints Run Defense vs. Panthers Rushing Attack

Will a suffocating New Orleans run defense be able to silence Carolina's best offensive weapon, Christian McCaffrey, and make their division rival one-dimensional?
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The New Orleans Saints travel to Charlotte, NC to take on an NFC South rival, the Carolina Panthers, this Sunday afternoon.

Both teams come into the contest with a 1-0 record. New Orleans routed the Green Bay Packers, 38-3, during a Week 1 game played in Jacksonville because of Hurricane Ida. Carolina defeated the New York Jets, 19-14, to kick off their regular season.

The Saints had perhaps the league's most impressive defensive performance in week one. New Orleans forced three turnovers, recorded two sacks, and held a highly touted Packers offense to only 229 yards and no touchdowns.

No team allowed fewer points, yardage, or rushing yards than the Saints in opening week.

New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56) drives Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) out of bounds. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY 

New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56) drives Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) out of bounds. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY 

New Orleans has been known for their prolific offense throughout the 15-year tenure of head coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees. Much of the team’s success over the last four years has been because of their suffocating defense. That’s particularly true in the running game.

The Saints have had a top-five defense against the run in each of the last three seasons. They allowed less than 94 yards on the ground a year ago and surrendered the second fewest rushing touchdowns in the league. Green Bay managed just 43 rushing yards against the Saints last week and a paltry 2.8 yards per carry.

Much like New Orleans, most of the national attention around the Panthers this offseason was focused on the quarterback position.

Carolina traded three draft picks to the Jets to get QB Sam Darnold. The Panthers also welcomed back a crucial offensive weapon in RB Christian McCaffrey, who was limited to just three games in 2020 because of injuries.

Carolina has some dangerous weapons at wide receiver for Darnold, but the team needs to support their young signal caller with an efficient ground attack. Will the Panthers be able to run the ball against one of the NFL's best run defenses?

SAINTS RUN DEFENSE VS. PANTHERS RUSHING OFFENSE

New Orleans Rush Defense

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) is tackled by New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56) and cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23). Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY 

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) is tackled by New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56) and cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23). Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY 

One of the strengths of this unit over the last few seasons has been its quality depth at defensive tackle. Core interior players Malcom Brown and Sheldon Rankins departed this offseason, and star DT David Onyemata is serving a six-game suspension to start the year.

Tackles Malcolm Roach, Christian Ringo, and Shy Tuttle held up well at the point of attack against the Packers. End Tanoh Kpassagnon, who has not practiced this week because of a calf injury, also gave the team some solid inside snaps.

The ability of the Saints tackles to get push inside allows their deep crew of defensive ends to crash inside. Pro Bowl DE Cam Jordan is as good against the run as he is as a pass rusher.

Marcus Davenport, who had a magnificent game against the Packers after a strong training camp, is expected to miss several weeks with a pectoral injury.

With the injury to Davenport and possible absence of Kpassagnon, expect rookie first-round pick Payton Turner to see significant action at defensive end after being inactive last week. Third-year DE Carl Granderson will also see increased playing time.

The Saints may have the most athletic linebacker crew in the league. All-Pro Demario Davis is a sideline to sideline playmaker and one of the NFL's best run-stoppers. 

Lightening fast LB Kwon Alexander will be out for at least the next few weeks with an elbow injury.  New Orleans will need to rely on their depth until Alexander returns.

Second-year LB Zack Baun led the team in tackles against Green Bay. Baun has made great strides after a quiet rookie campaign and will be a big part of the defensive effort in 2021.

Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey (22) is wrapped up by the New Orleans Saints defense. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey (22) is wrapped up by the New Orleans Saints defense. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Providing quality depth is LB Kaden Elliss, a smart player that plays solid run defense. Promising rookie Pete Werner, a second-round selection, may also see his first game action despite being limited by a hamstring injury.

The Saints secondary is as active against the run as any defensive backfield in the league. Safety Malcolm Jenkins is often used as an extra linebacker near the line of scrimmage. 

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Marshon Lattimore, and P.J. Williams are outstanding tacklers who fly up from their secondary spots to make big stops.

Lattimore (hand surgery) and Gardner-Johnson (knee) have both been limited in practice this week. If either sit out on Sunday, cornerbacks Desmond Trufant, rookie Paulson Adebo, and newcomer Bradley Roby will have to be strong in run support besides pass coverage.

Carolina Run Offense

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) runs as New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) defends. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) runs as New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) defends. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Without McCaffrey in the lineup last year, the Panthers averaged just 121 yards rushing, ranking 20th in the league. Their 4.7 yards per rush was 28th in the NFL and they were held to less than 100 yards rushing in six contests.

McCaffrey had consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons prior to last year. He became just the third back in NFL history with over 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in 2019. At 5'11" and 205-Lbs., he carries an enormous workload for the team.

Playing in his first game since last November, McCaffrey again saw a heavy workload against the Jets. He rushed for 98 yards on 21 carries and added another 89 yards on 9 receptions. Backups Chuba Hubbard, Royce Freeman, and Giovanni Ricci spelled McCaffrey for only seven of the team’s 64 snaps last week.

Carolina's offensive line continued to have issues in pass protection last week. RT Taylor Moton is the team’s best lineman, followed by veteran C Matt Paradis. A rebuilding project continues for the rest of the line, who must be able to open up cutback lanes for the slashing style of McCaffrey.

What to Watch

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) is tacked by New Orleans Saints defensive ends Carl Granderson (96) and Trey Hendrickson (91). Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) is tacked by New Orleans Saints defensive ends Carl Granderson (96) and Trey Hendrickson (91). Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints primary task will be containing Christian McCaffrey and forcing QB Sam Darnold to beat them with the passing game.

In six games against New Orleans, McCaffrey has just 139 rushing yards and has averaged only 3.2 yards/carry. He’s made a bigger impact against the Saints as a receiver, catching 39 passes for 364 yards.

When the Saints stifled Green Bay's rushing attack last week, it made their secondary and pass rush more effective against Aaron Rodgers without the threat of play action.

It’s safe to say that Rodgers is a much better quarterback than Darnold. Even with the absences of Lattimore and Davenport, the Carolina offense should be in for a long day if the Saints eliminate McCaffrey as a rushing threat.

Follow Bob Rose on Facebook and Twitter @bobbyr2613.

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