The 3-2 New Orleans Saints host the 3-3 Carolina Panthers in a matchup of NFC South rivals this Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints are coming off a bye week after winning two straight but will be without their top two wide receivers for the game.
All-Pro Michael Thomas, who missed the last four games with an ankle injury, will be sidelined by a hamstring injury suffered in Wednesday's practice. Fellow wideout Emmanuel Sanders, who had 18 receptions for 215 yards in the last two games, was placed on the Reserve-Covid list after a confirmed positive test on Friday.
Carolina is coming off a home loss to the Chicago Bears that snapped a three-game winning streak. The Panthers are without their offensive star, running back Christian McCaffrey, who has been out since Week 2 with an ankle injury.
Carolina will also be minus three defensive starters. Defensive linemen Kawann Short and Yetur Gross-Matos are on injured reserve, and they placed cornerback Rasul Douglas on the Reserve-Covid list this week.
Each offensive line must stand up to pressure from the opposing defenses. Carolina doesn't pressure the quarterback well, but talented edge rusher Brian Burns will challenge Saints offensive tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead to keep Drew Brees upright. A suspect Panthers offensive line that has given up 12 sacks and several hurries must stand up to the pressure of a New Orleans defense that have sacked opposing passers 13 times.
However, this contest's most intriguing matchups may be on the outside, where both teams will miss key players on each side of the ball. Here are two matchups to watch closest when these two NFC South rivals face off against one another.
SAINTS CORNERBACKS vs. PANTHERS WIDE RECEIVERS
New Orleans gets Pro Bowl CB Janoris Jenkins back after missing two games with a shoulder injury. He and fellow Pro Bowler Marshon Lattimore form one of the league's best duo of shutdown corners, capable of shutting down the NFL's top wideouts.
Lattimore has had an inconsistent season after a convincing performance in the season opener, however, and the entire secondary has struggled with coverage breakdowns and penalties.
The Saints have allowed 7 touchdown passes to opposing wideouts so far, and four wide receivers have had at least 70 yards receiving against them.
Jenkins, who has one interception, has allowed just 57.9% completion percentage and no touchdowns when targeted, while Lattimore has surrendered 2 scores and allowed 62% completion percentage when he is targeted. Fellow cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Patrick Robinson have continued to be targeted by the opposition when they are on the field, often with astonishing success.
Carolina wide receivers Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore have accounted for 62% of the team’s passing game, combining for 67 receptions, 1,040 yards, and 2 touchdowns in six games. Anderson, an offseason free-agent pickup, has 40 catches and is among the league leaders with 566 receiving yards, has built instant chemistry with QB Teddy Bridgewater.
Moore, who had a breakout campaign in 2019, has 27 receptions for 474 yards this season. He had six catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 12 game against the Saints last year.
Both Anderson and Moore are dangerous deep threats, but each is a capable route runner through the short and intermediate zones with good running ability after the catch. Number 3 wideout Curtis Samuel also has dangerous open-field ability but may miss this game with a knee injury.
The Saints have been extremely vulnerable to tight ends. Still, without McCaffrey, this air duel's winner will probably come down to the showdown between the inconsistent New Orleans corners and Carolina's star receivers.
SAINTS WIDE RECEIVERS vs. PANTHERS CORNERBACKS
The New Orleans passing game will need to be creative without their top receivers Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders in the lineup. Inconsistent third-year pro Tre'Quan Smith will be asked to assume the responsibilities of Thomas.
They have targeted Smith 21 times this season, catching 16 passes for 194 yards and 2 scores. Smith has good size and excellent speed, but has struggled to separate from coverage or run precise routes, causing him to disappear for long stretches.
Undrafted rookie WR Marquez Callaway has impressed coaches and Brees with his outstanding athleticism and his physicality against tight coverage. He’s caught 5 of his 7 targets for 50 yards, including four receptions for 34 yards in the Saints last game against the Los Angeles.
All-Pro kick returner Deonte Harris will be back after missing the Chargers game and is a threat to take the top off a defense or a quick pass for a big gain. He has 7 receptions for 55 yards this season after 7 catches for 74 yards during his rookie year.
Versatile veteran Ty Montgomery returns to the Saints after spending four weeks on injured reserve. Montgomery has two catches for 25 yards in two games of action and is an outstanding open-field runner.
The Saints also activated veteran receiver Austin Carr and undrafted rookie Juwan Johnson from the practice squad for depth. Carr has four years of experience in Sean Payton's offense and has 10 career receptions. Johnson is a physical specimen with terrific athletic ability who has yet to appear in an NFL game.
Carolina has given up at least 85 receiving yards to four different players this season and will now be without starter Rasul Douglas. However, it looks like former New Orleans CB Eli Apple will be back from injury. Their top corner is third-year pro Donte Jackson, who has been slowed by a toe injury but has 2 interceptions and five passes defended this year.
Jackson has allowed 63.6% completion percentage and 2 touchdowns when targeted but has 9 career interceptions. Rookie CB Troy Pride Jr. has shown exciting potential, but both he and CB Corn Elder have been susceptible to big plays down the field.
The Panthers have often dropped extra players into coverage rather than blitzing, but their secondary has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 67% of their throws. Without Thomas and Sanders, I expect the Saints to run the ball more than usual and rely on RB Alvin Kamara and TE Jared Cook in the passing game.
Even with Kamara and Cook's talents, the New Orleans wideouts will need to make plays to keep the Carolina coverage spread out. If the shorthanded Saints receiving corps can make plays, it should lead to a big offensive day against a struggling Panthers defense.