Saints vs. Panthers: Players to Watch

Which New Orleans players need to take center stage for the Saints to beat Carolina?
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The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers face off today in New Orleans for the first of two meetings between these NFC South rivals this season. Today's contest is the 52nd all-time meeting between the Saints and Panthers, with New Orleans holding a 26-25 edge in the series. 

The teams have a 13-13 record against each other when the game is played in New Orleans. The Saints have won 4 of the last five home meetings against the Panthers, and won 7 of the last 9 against them overall.

New Orleans comes into this game with a 3-2 record, winners of their last two before a bye last week. Carolina enters with a 3-3 mark, with a loss last Sunday against Chicago to snap a three-game winning streak. Both teams are missing some star players for this face-off. 

Panthers All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey will miss his fifth straight game with an ankle injury, and defensive starters Kawann Short, Yetur Gross-Matos, and Rasul Douglas have also been ruled out.

Several New Orleans players got healthy during the bye week, but the Saints will be without their top two wide receivers. Record-breaking All-Pro Michael Thomas will miss his fifth straight game after injuring a hamstring during practice while returning from his ankle injury. Wideout Emmanuel Sanders, who had come on strong in the past two games, was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list after a positive test on Friday.

Each squad still has star players on both sides of the ball whose performances will determine the outcome. Here are a few of the Saints players to watch closely in this important clash between divisional foes.

RYAN RAMCZYK, OFFENSIVE TACKLE

CREDIT © Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

CREDIT © Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The All-Pro right tackle has shut down some of the NFL's finest pass rushers over his four-year career, and teams with LT Terron Armstead to form the league's best tandem of offensive tackles. Ramczyk has had some uncharacteristic breakdowns in pass protection over the last two games, allowing two sacks and six other hits on Drew Brees from Detroit's Romeo Okwara and a hobbled Joey Bosa of the Chargers.

The Panthers don't pressure opposing quarterbacks well. They have just five sacks on the year, but two of them from talented edge rusher Brian Burns, who also has 14 QB pressures and three tackles for loss this season. Burns had 7.5 sacks as a rookie in 2019. One of those, along with 3 quarterback hits, came in two matchups against the Saints.

Dec 29, 2019; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) with the ball as Carolina Panthers linebacker Brian Burns (53) pressures in the first quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 29, 2019; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) with the ball as Carolina Panthers linebacker Brian Burns (53) pressures in the first quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterback Drew Brees has thrown 50 touchdown passes, just 21 interceptions, and has averaged 290 yards passing in 25 games against the Panthers while with New Orleans. The Saints offensive line must protect the 41-Yr old signal-caller if he gets anywhere close to that production this week without Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. 

Burns will probably be moved around the defensive formation during the game but will likely face Ramczyk the most. The elite tackle must rebound from two slightly down outings and return to the high standard we expect.

MARCUS WILLIAMS, FREE SAFETY

Jan 7, 2018; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints free safety Marcus Williams (43) signals as Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) waits for the snap during the first quarter in the NFC Wild Card playoff football game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 7, 2018; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints free safety Marcus Williams (43) signals as Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) waits for the snap during the first quarter in the NFC Wild Card playoff football game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Williams, a fourth-year safety, got off to an outstanding start to the year against Tampa Bay, like the rest of the New Orleans secondary. Williams has struggled with in coverages by taking bad angles and subpar play since, along with the team's other defensive backs. 

New Orleans cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins have crucial one-on-one battles against Carolina receivers Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore, but both wideouts are also dangerous deep threats.

The Saints often use a single-high safety alignment on defense, leaving Williams with the deep open-field responsibility. He must be decisive in his decision-making because the Panthers will test the struggling New Orleans secondary deep. Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater knows this defense after being with the Saints for two seasons. 

Bridgewater tends to sail his throws when he’s under pressure, so New Orleans will look to hurry the Carolina passer. If they are successful, Williams will have opportunities to make plays if he's in the right position.

JARED COOK, TIGHT END

Nov 24, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints tight end Jared Cook (87) breaks a tackle by Carolina Panthers strong safety Eric Reid (25) during the first half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY

Nov 24, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints tight end Jared Cook (87) breaks a tackle by Carolina Panthers strong safety Eric Reid (25) during the first half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY

Cook has caught 11 of his 18 targets for 166 yards and two scores this season. Eight of his receptions have resulted in 1st downs, and the twelve-year veteran is still a downfield threat. 

He missed Week 4 with a groin injury but returned against the Chargers in Week 5 to haul in a key 41-Yd touchdown catch. With the bye week for extra recovery, expect Cook to be a considerable part of the game plan. Especially with Thomas and Sanders sidelined. 

In two meetings against Carolina last season, Cook caught eight passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns, including 6 receptions for 99 yards and a score during a Week 12 matchup against them at home.

CAM JORDAN, DEFENSIVE END

Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan pressures Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen during the NFL football game between the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers in the Mecedes-Benz Superdome. Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018. © SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network

Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan pressures Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen during the NFL football game between the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers in the Mecedes-Benz Superdome. Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018. © SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network

Jordan got off to a slow start this season but has picked up his play over the last two games. He has 1.5 sacks, 4 pressures, and 4 tackles for loss so far and will be a vital part of a New Orleans defensive front that needs to shut down the Panthers running game and pressure Bridgewater. 

The Saints have 13 sacks and 32 QB hits in five games. Defensive end Marcus Davenport is now healthy and had a disruptive impact against Los Angeles. Fellow DE Trey Hendrickson leads the team with 4.5 sacks, and the Saints’ deep unit of defensive tackles have created havoc against most of their opponents.

The Panthers will probably use double teams to help LT Russell Okung against Davenport and Hendrickson and pinch their protection inside when possible to protect Bridgewater's interior and hoping to create room for their running attack. 

That will leave Jordan with one-on-one opportunities against Carolina's best offensive lineman, RT Taylor Moton. In 19 career games against the Panthers, Cam Jordan has 10 sacks, 19 QB knockdowns, and 15 tackles for loss.

TAYSOM HILL

© SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network

© SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network

Without Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, the New Orleans running attack must be effective with Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray. Brees will still have weapons in the passing game. 

Kamara and Cook will be heavily involved in the game plan, but Brees also needs plays from Tre'Quan Smith, Marquez Callaway, or Deonte Harris. However, the biggest wild card for the New Orleans passing game could be Taysom Hill.

Hill has been largely ineffective during the 2020 season, despite a crucial scoring run against the Chargers. He has just 43 rushing yards on 13 attempts, and the use of him as a ‘‘Wildcat’’ quarterback has made the New Orleans offense predictable, stagnant, and often killed offensive momentum. Hill's value in this matchup won't be as a runner, and certainly not as a passer, but as another receiver for Brees.

Hill caught 19 of 22 targets for 234 yards and six touchdowns in 2019 and caught 2 more passes for 25 yards and a score in their playoff game. The full versatility of Taysom Hill has not been utilized by Sean Payton this season, and he’s caught just three passes. 

I expect Payton uses Hill more as a receiver against the Panthers to get his athleticism in the open field. Without their top two wideouts, the Saints will have to be more creative with their passing attack. The Panthers coverage will focus on players like Alvin Kamara and Jared Cook, which should open up Hill's opportunities to be a difference in the game.