The 1-0 New Orleans Saints play their first division game of the year when they travel to face NFC South rival Carolina on Sunday. The Panthers are also 1-0 after a 19-14 defeat of the New York Jets last Sunday.
New Orleans is coming off a 38-3 rout of the Green Bay Packers. It was a game originally scheduled at home in the Superdome, but was moved to Jacksonville in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.
They are scheduled to play on the road the next two weeks, with a possible return to the Superdome on October 3 against the New York Giants.
The Saints had the second highest point total of any team on opening weekend. They did it with a balanced attack and by controlling the line of scrimmage. The Saints averaged 4.8 yards per rush and picked up 171 yards on the ground against the Packers.
Balance has been the key to coach Sean Payton's offense. The Saints ranked 12th in total offense in 2020, but sixth in rushing output. They averaged over 141 yards per game on the ground last season and led the NFL with 30 rushing touchdowns.
The Panthers have rebuilt their defense through the draft over the last two years. They ranked 18th in the league defensively in 2020, finishing around the same mark in most major defensive categories.
Carolina had a strong defensive performance against the Jets to start the year. They hope to repeat the feat against an extremely physical New Orleans offense.
Jameis Winston had an impressive debut in his first start with New Orleans, replacing the legendary Drew Brees. Winston tossed five touchdowns, but only attempted 20 passes as the Saints simply bullied the Packers.
‘‘Bully ball'' has been a recipe for New Orleans success over the last few seasons. Carolina's challenge will be to stymie the Saints rushing attack and increase the pressure on Winston to beat them with the passing game.
SAINTS RUSHING ATTACK VS. PANTHERS RUSH DEFENSE
New Orleans Running Game
Second-year RB Tony Jones Jr. followed up a strong training camp and preseason with an effective outing against Green Bay. Jones picked up 50 yards on 11 carries, allowing the Saints to attack the Packers with a powerful 1-2 punch at running back.
The key to the Saints offense is dynamic RB Alvin Kamara, who had 83 yards on the ground with 20 carries against the Packers. Kamara is the league's most dangerous offensive weapon. New Orleans moves him around the formation to take advantage of his versatility.
Kamara's open field skills are even more effective because of solid complementary weapons to carry the ball. After last week's release of reliable veteran Latavius Murray, Jones provided a terrific complement to Kamara.
Jack-of-all-trades weapon Taysom Hill only carried the ball twice against the Packers. Payton does not hesitate to use Hill in any situation. He’s a physical runner between the tackles and gives the team a lethal three-headed rushing combination.
Even with Kamara's elite combination of vision, balance, and explosiveness, the key to the Saints rushing attack is at the line of scrimmage. New Orleans has the NFL's best offensive line. It’s a unit that pummels opponents up front and imposes their will on defenses.
Star C Erik McCoy went down with a calf injury during the opening series last Sunday. Cesar Ruiz moved to the middle from his starting right guard spot and reserve Calvin Throckmorton took his place at guard. The offense didn't miss a beat, dominating the Green Bay front.
McCoy is expected to miss several weeks. The Saints bolstered interior depth by signing former Chiefs C Austin Reiter. LG Andrus Peat has had consistency issues as a pass blocker, but he’s a mauler in the run game.
Elite tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk are best-known for their pass blocking. Both players are also outstanding run blockers who seal the edge expertly to allow Kamara, Jones, and Hill to get outside.
Carolina Run Defense
The Panthers allowed 121 yards per game on the ground on the ground in 2020, ranking 20th in the league. Eight opponents gained over 130 yards rushing against them, and their 4.7 yards per rush allowed was the fifth worst in the NFL.
Carolina showed great improvement to open 2021. They allowed only 45 yards on the ground to the Jets. Only the Saints surrendered fewer rushing yards in week 1.
Linebacker Shaq Thompson was the star of the game with a team-high 10 tackles, a sack, 3 passes broken up, and an interception.
The Panthers have built a stout and deep defensive line. Defensive tackle Derrick Brown, the number 7 overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, looks to build on a promising rookie campaign. Brown is a powerful player at 6’5” and 326-Lbs that can cave in interior blocking.
Flanking Brown at tackle is underrated run-stopper DaQuan Jones, rookie fifth-round choice Davyion Nixon, and Bravvion Roy. All four players are mammoth presences that are a major challenge for interior linemen.
The ability of Carolina's tackles to get inside push allows their linebackers to shoot open gaps and their ends to crash inside.
Brian Burns is developing into a terrific all-around defensive end, while athletic LB Shaq Thompson is excellent at running down opposing backs.
Ends Morgan Fox, Marquis Haynes, and MLB Jermaine Carter round out a much improved front seven for the Panthers, along with pass rusher Haason Reddick.
What To Watch
In six career games against the Panthers, Alvin Kamara has averaged 58 yards rushing on less than ten carries per contest, but has scored six touchdowns. The Saints rushed for a combined 294 yards in two meetings against Carolina last year.
Look for New Orleans to try and establish that same kind of balance when facing the Panthers on Sunday. That same sort of game plan was run with great success against Green Bay last week.
The key battle to watch will be in the middle of the trenches. Ruiz, Peat, Throckmorton, and perhaps Reiter will have to win their interior battles against the big-bodied Carolina tackles without McCoy.
If New Orleans wins the line of scrimmage, that will open crucial cutback lanes for Kamara, Jones, and Hill. The passing game will also greatly be aided by establishing the running game because it will open up play-action opportunities.
Follow Bob Rose on Facebook and Twitter @bobbyr2613.