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Saints Run Defense vs. Panthers Rushing Attack

New Orleans looks to halt Carolina's top offensive threat in his tracks in a pivotal week 3 NFC South matchup.
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The 1-1 New Orleans Saints face their third straight NFC South opponent when they travel to take on the 0-2 Carolina Panthers this Sunday. New Orleans is coming off an emotional home loss to Tampa Bay after an equally emotional comeback at Atlanta in week one. Carolina is coming off two close losses to the Browns and Giants.

The Saints played much better defensively against the Buccaneers after an uneven performance on that side of the ball to start the year. Their struggles against the run against the Falcons were especially concerning, but they rebounded nicely last week.

Carolina has had major questions at quarterback for the last three seasons that have yet to be answered so far this year. However, the Panthers have one of the league's better offensive weapons when RB Christian McCaffrey is healthy.

Here's how the Saints run defense matches up against Carolina's running game.

New Orleans Run Defense

  • 23 points per game
  • 136.5 rushing yards per game
  • 4.0 per rush
  • 2 rushing touchdowns
  • 5 tackles for loss
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) is tackled by the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) is tackled by the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

After giving up an astounding 201 yards on the ground against the Falcons, New Orleans looked like the dominating run defense of the previous four years against the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay picked up only 72 yards rushing on 30 attempts, with RB Leonard Fournette averaging only 2.7 yards on 24 carries.

The Saints defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage far better in week two than they did to open the year. Defensive tackles David Onyemata and Shy Tuttle need to continue to get good penetration at the snap to blow up running plays in their infancy. It’s equally important that tackles Kentavius Street and Christian Ringo give the team quality snaps to maintain a fresh interior rotation late in games.

A fresh rotation along the edge isn't an issue for a deep New Orleans defensive end position. Saints ends Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport have been quiet in the pass rushing department so far, but continue to be formidable run defenders. Carl Granderson, Tanoh Kpassagnon, and Payton Turner supply quality depth, but the unit needs to be more disruptive from snap to snap.

The Saints linebackers are even more effective when their line creates havoc up front. Second-year LB Pete Werner leads the team with 21 tackles so far, including 13 in the season opener. Stud LB Demario Davis continues to be the catalyst of the entire unit. Davis has 12 tackles so far and is coming off four straight years with at least 100 stops.

Werner and Davis are outstanding athletes in sideline-to-sideline pursuit, but also sift through traffic decisively to the ball and possess terrific play diagnosing skills. Fourth-year LB Kaden Elliss contributes on early downs for a thin unit behind their two playmakers.

The Saints have a secondary that’s aggressive in run support. Pro Bowl CB Marshon Lattimore is an elite cover corner, but is also outstanding against the run. A trio of physical safeties routinely swarm to the ball carrier and play like an extra set of linebackers.

Sixth-year S Marcus Maye has been terrific since being signed this offseason. Maye has 13 tackles, including 11 solo stops and a game-turning fumble against the Falcons. Veteran Tyrann Mathieu has been equally effective, racking up 10 stops and being a factor all over the field. Justin Evans has been another great offseason addition, while P.J. Williams makes up solid depth.

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Carolina Rushing Attack

  • 20 points per game
  • 100 yards rushing per game
  • 4.8 per rush
  • 2 rushing touchdowns
Sep 19, 2021; Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) runs for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 19, 2021; Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) runs for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

As long as he’s healthy, the Panthers offense will ride on the 26-year-old McCaffrey's shoulders. After a 33-yard rushing output against Cleveland to open the season, McCaffrey had 102 yards on 15 carries against the Giants last week. An accomplished receiver, he’s also pulled in 8 passes for 50 yards so far.

The problem with McCaffrey is his health. Since his second straight 1,000-yard campaign and becoming just the fourth player in NFL history to have 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in the same season, McCaffrey has been on the sidelines more than the field. Various injuries have allowed him to play in just 10 of Carolina's last 27 games, all but crippling their offensive attack.

Second-year RB Chuba Hubbard had a solid performance in McCaffrey's absence last year. Hubbard had 612 rushing yards and five scores in 10 starts as a rookie, but has just one touch so far this year. The Panthers also signed bruising back D'Onta Freeman this offseason. Freeman performed well in relief of an injured Derrick Henry for the Titans last year, but has just four rushes for the Panthers thus far.

Carolina continues to have issues with pass protection, but their offensive line does a decent job in the running game. Rookie first-round choice Ikem Ekwonu looks like a potential star at left tackle, where the Panthers like to run most often. Veteran RG Austin Corbett was a big offseason signing in free agency. He joins RT Taylor Moton, C Pat Elflein, and G/T Brady Christensen up front.

What to Expect

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

Even with the additions at running back, McCaffrey still shoulders this offense. As long as he’s healthy, it’s hard to argue with his production. The Saints have contained him pretty well on the ground in eight meetings, holding him to an average of 35 yards rushing and 3.1 per carry.

McCaffrey is just as dangerous as a receiver and allows the Panthers to use short passes as an extension of their running game. He’s caught 50 passes for 530 yards in eight games against the Saints, pulling in at least five receptions seven times and surpassing 100 yards twice.

New Orleans linebackers Demario Davis and Pete Werner will be tested by McCaffrey's open field skills and must prevent him from making plays in space. The Saints defensive line must stalemate the point of attack, allowing Davis and Werner to attack the gaps and shut down McCaffrey's cut-back opportunities.

New Orleans needs to maintain their defensive momentum from last week's loss against the Buccaneers. Panthers QB Baker Mayfield needs a productive running game to be effective. If the Saints can shut down McCaffrey on the ground, it will not only handcuff Carolina's best offensive weapon but also puts the onus on the Panthers struggling passing attack. 

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