New Orleans Saints Vs. Carolina Panthers Preview

Bob Rose

The New Orleans Saints play their third divisional game in as many weeks this Sunday when they host the Carolina Panthers. New Orleans rebounded nicely from a surprising defeat at home to Atlanta two weeks ago with a 34-17 road win at Tampa Bay last Sunday. The Saints lead the NFC South with a record of 8-2 and can put a stranglehold on the division with a victory over the 5-5 Panthers.

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Dec 17, 2018; Charlotte, NC, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) gets tackled by Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) and free safety Mike Adams (29) during the fourth quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina opened the 2019 season with two losses before rattling off four straight wins to enter their bye week. Since their bye in Week 7, however, the team has lost 3 of 4 games, with their once vaunted defense giving up an average of 44.6 points per game over that span.

 The Panthers lead the league in sacks with 39 and have intercepted 12 passes, 3rd in the NFL, and forced 7 fumbles. They can pressure the passer with their dynamic defensive front, who are responsible for 28 of those takedowns, forcing quarterbacks into mistakes. Panthers’ edge Mario Addison, Bruce Irvin, and rookie Brian Burns have combined with tackles Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, and Vernon Butler to provide a good pass rush but have been inconsistent against the run.

 Carolina has a top-flight cornerback in Donte Jackson, complimented by James Bradberry at and Eric Reid at safety to give them solid playmakers on the back end. The Panthers have struggled to stop the run this season, ranking just 27th in that category. Linebacker Luke Kuechly is still one of the better in the league; but is a step slower and isn’t the sideline to sideline playmaker he once was.

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Dec 30, 2018; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) breaks a franchise record for receiving yards in a season on a catch against the Carolina Panthers during the fourth quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans offensive success starts with a powerful offensive line that protects their quarterbacks like a fortress and bullies opponents in the running game. Offensive tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead form the best duo in the game while rookie center Erik McCoy has played at a high level. 

Quarterback Drew Brees is fully recovered from thumb surgery earlier this season and terrorizes defenses with his pinpoint accuracy. Wide receiver Michael Thomas leads the NFL with 94 receptions for 1,141 yards but the team has gotten little production from their other wideouts. Tight end Jared Cook has 23 catches for 275 yards and 3 touchdowns, showing why the team invested heavily to add him this offseason. Running back Alvin Kamara is back to form after being hobbled by ankle and knee injuries. Kamara has 51 receptions for 373 yards and a touchdown while leading the team in rushing with 472 yards and a touchdown. He and Latavius Murray (398 yards rushing, 4 touchdowns) form a lethal duo at running back for a balanced New Orleans attack.

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Dec 30, 2018; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) runs against the New Orleans Saints during the first quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Offensively, Carolina’s success revolves around the talents of 3rd year running back Christian McCaffrey. The dynamic back already has a league-best 1,059 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns to go along with 59 receptions for 517 yards and 3 additional scores. Longtime quarterback Cam Newton is on injured reserve, leaving the Panthers with major questions about the future of the position. Second year quarterback Kyle Allen won his first four starts after replacing Newton but has been erratic over the last few games. Allen has completed under 62% of his passes, averaging 240 yards per game while throwing 10 touchdowns and 9 interceptions.

 Last year’s top draft choice D.J. Moore is the team’s top receiver with 62 receptions for 779 yards but has just one score. Veteran tight end Greg Olsen continues to be productive in his 13th season, hauling in 40 passes for 486 yards and 2 touchdowns. Wideout Curtis Samuel has the second most targets on the team with 75 but only has caught 38 of them for 467 yards and a team high 4 touchdowns. The Panthers have had a difficult time protecting their quarterback, giving up a total of 34 sacks on the year and often putting Allen on the run in an attempt to make plays.

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The 6th ranked Saints' defense predicates themselves on getting heavy pressure on the passer. Their defense has 27 sacks on the season but they’ve continually hurried quarterbacks into rushed throws. Defensive end Cameron Jordan leads the way with 9.5 takedowns but they’ve also gotten good disruption from Marcus Davenport and Trey Hendrickson at the other end spot and Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, and Malcom Brown inside. 

The team has masterfully mixed in blitzes with exotic coverage packages to intercept 8 passes and hold opposing to just 60% completion percentage. Top cornerback Marshon Lattimore will miss his second straight game with a hamstring injury but corners Eli Apple, P.J. Williams, and rookie Chauncey Gardner-Johnson played well against Tampa Bay star wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. The New Orleans run defense ranks 3rd in the league and has held six of their last seven opponents under 100 yards on the ground. Tackles Brown, Rankins, and Onyemata have dominated the line of scrimmage allowing their linebackers to knife into the backfield to make plays. Linebacker Demario Davis has played like an All-Pro all season but will be tested by the versatile skill set of McCaffrey.

This is the 50th meeting between New Orleans and Carolina, with the Panthers holding a 25-24 edge in the series and a 13-12 advantage when the game in New Orleans. The Saints look to have a significant advantage in most of the 1-on-1 matchups but have struggled a bit in converting their red zone opportunities into touchdowns. This has traditionally been a physical rivalry; but New Orleans has won most of their games this season by imposing their will along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Carolina needs this win to have a realistic chance at the division title and to keep their playoff hopes alive. A Saints win, though, would all but clinch their third straight divisional crown in their pursuit of a top seed in the NFC playoff race. 

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