How The 2013 New Orleans Saints Were Beaten: Carolina Panthers

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

In 2013, the Saints went 11-5. The blueprint for the Patriots, Jets, Seahawks, Rams, and Panthers, despite these five teams looking very different, was remarkably similar, as copious amounts of study suggest. This article series is a closer look at each of the five teams that beat the Saints in 2013.

Writer's Note: This is a not a discussion of whether the Saints were the better team that day. I'd rather that the comments didn't devolve into how the Saints were screwed out of a win. If there are dissenting opinions to what I'm posting, I'd be happy to read them, but only if they're related to actual strategy rather than extraneous factors. Thank you.

"Losing is the first step towards winning."

This quote and variations of it have permeated the NFL for years.  As children we’re taught to learn from our mistakes and not to make them again.  This mentality is complete malarkey.  At least in the NFL it is.  The first step towards winning is preparation.  The second: Execution.

The Saints went 11-5 last season, along with a loss in the divisional round of the playoffs.  This means that 6 different times, the Saints were outmatched on gameday.  There is a blueprint to defeat every team in the NFL, and the PatriotsJetsSeahawksRamsPanthers, and Seahawks again found New Orleans’.

The rhetoric leading up to a matchup is always the same: We need to pressure their quarterback and force him to make tough decisions.  We’ll also need to control the clock and make sure that we keep their high powered offense off the field.  This is every team’s strategy for beating every other team in the league, but it’s merely the foundation for how to do so.  So how did New Orleans get beat last season? Today we look at their loss to the Panthers.

***

This one really hurt and was the make or break game that would ultimately result in the Saints losing the NFC South.  It saw the aforementioned Armstead making his first start against the so called "Kraken," and was part one in a two-part series that gave Hardy leverage in his contract talks with Caroline so . . . Thanks?  Armstead and Atlanta?

The real problem was actually that New Orleans got caught playing Carolina’s game.  It was a long, slow, grind it out game that showcased two strong defenses holding each other to less than 20 points.  The problem is that, at the end of the day last year, the Panthers had a more daunting defense to face.  The Saints’ strength was in their secondary, which only spoiled fans will say isn’t good, but the Panthers’ front 7 is a whole new animal that keeps quarterbacks on their backs and holds the run game well (although New Orleans actually ran the ball well in this game).

However, let’s not pretend that Carolina didn’t grind out a win in this.

This play showcases the athletic ability of Hardy.  The Hardy-Armstead matchup is circled in black on the bottom of the screen.  Bear in mind, this is New Orleans’ second consecutive week facing a top 5 blindside right end, and blocking Hardy is daunting for anyone, let alone a guy in his very first start.

The play here is a simple clearout stick screen to Sproles from the top side.  The blue circles represent Panther routes taken, the red are Saints.  Basically, the Panthers are in a Cover 1 robber defense, one of their favorite sets.  There is a safety high, whereas Luke Kuechly is patrolling the middle.  The topside corner sags off, the others make sure no one is open.  Brees’s first read is to Sproles.

Brees, however, sees the zone and hesitates.  He looks down the seam for Graham, but Quintin Mikell and Kuechly are both in position to make a play on a ball thrown over the top or inside.  Sproles is still alone up top, but the circled Hardy has broken inside of Armstead and has his path, with the final result being a 9 yard sack.

Going through the play itself, we can clearly see Brees lock onto Sproles before thinking there will be more opportunities down the field.  When they don't present themselves, however, Brees is forced to try to get back to his #1 target, by which time Hardy has already

A.) Shed his block.

B.) Gotten inside position

and C.) Sealed off any alternative passing lanes or routes of escape for Brees.

Offensively, Carolina ran a very simple scheme: Don’t be stupid.  Seeing the theme?  They didn’t make big plays, but they didn’t make stupid ones either.  Cam Newton’s 13/22, 181 yard stat line wasn’t pretty, but it did what it needed to.  It kept the ball away from the defense.

Carolina comes out with a 2 back set out of the shotgun, which in their offense could mean anything.  The Saints are running a variation of the predator, in which only the 0-tech (here lined up in the 2 gap) is in a 3 point stance.

At the snap, Cam isn’t looking for the open receiver, but rather gauging the defensive look.  The Saints are running a very stock off-man cover 2 defense, in which all 11 defenders are facing the quarterback.  Newton reads this quickly.

Immediately post pump fake, Newton draws in 3 Saints defenders, indicated by the black lines.  He also has his back turned to the defensive line, a no-no if you’re literally anyone other than Newton.

Now, at the time of the throw, Saints’ defenders are reacting rather than reading.  The black lines are legitimate routes run.  They zig and they zag, but the designed screen catches the entire defense out of position, and Greg Olsen has room to run.  This is how the Panthers ended up defeated the Saints: through patience and by making smart plays instead of flashy ones.  The Saints defense actually played very well in this particular game, but in a game that would ultimately end 17-13, every yards end up mattering so much more.  The result is only a 9 yard gain for Olsen, but it gave the Panthers better position to strike.

The Panthers learned from the mistakes they made the first time that they played New Orleans.  They ran the ball tougher and they relied on an overly aggressive defense that they attacked through counters and screens.  Defensively, they forced New Orleans to play their game, which would effectively give them the NFC South in 2013.

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