In what was a roller-coaster of a game with plenty of ups and downs along the way, here are a couple that stood out.
Up: Brandin Cooks
Brandin Cooks finished the game with a career-high in receiving yards that included an 87-yard catch and run for a score. The crazy thing? He could have had an even bigger game.
Drew Brees’s lone big mistake in the game came on an interception where he missed Brandin Cooks open in the middle of the field for a big gain. He also slightly overthrew a pass where Cooks had a step and a half on the closest defenders. If Brees is able to drop that ball into Cooks’s hands in stride, it’s an automatic touchdown.
Brandin Cooks is quickly and quietly becoming an elite WR in the NFL who has good hands and runs good routes in the middle of the field for first down pick-ups, but can also blow the top of the defense for the homerun.
Down: Tony Hills
After the injury to Andrus Peat near the end of the first half, third-string Tackle Tony Hills was put into the game. It’s no coincidence that the Saints offense put up 21 quick points in the first quarter, and then had series where they struggled once Hills was inserted into the game.
Hills filled in admirably as best he could, and he should not be terribly faulted for his poor play. The lone sack on Brees came when he got beat by the defensive linemen, and other hits in Drew came by rushers getting past Hills’s side of the line.
The bigger problem, though, were the mental mistakes. In one series alone, Hills got beat leading to a rushed throw and hit on Brees, was flagged for a false start, and then was flagged for being too far up the field when the Saints connected for a first down on a third and long. The Saints were forced to punt, with their backs against their own endzone.
Up: Saints pass rush
Much praise has been given to Nick Fairly’s work early this season, and deservedly so. But the entire Saints defensive line was again above-average at getting to the QB. The unit managed 13 hits on Panthers QB Cam Newton including a couple of sacks for loss.
Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart was still able to have a big game, busting out a couple of nice runs with two trips to pay dirt. Still, the the Panthers were held to just around 100 rushing yards as a team, which is usually considered one of the Panthers strengths.
The front group of guys, led by DE Cameron Jordan, were able to again put pressure on the opposing QB, force awkward throws, and hit Cam just enough to keep him in check. If only the Saints secondary was able to capitalize.
Down: Saints cornerbacks
Yes, CB Sterling Moore intercepted a pass in the endzone, but that felt more lucky than anything. Three times pass interference was called at or near the end zone, giving the ball to the Panthers at first and goal to go.
Granted, the pass interference call on Kenny Vaccaro seemed bogus (even trying to be an unbiased observer) and that would have resulted in a key turnover on downs. But even still, there were two times DPI was called simply because the Saints CB never turned his head around to make a play on the ball.
It’s getting embarrassingly predictable at this point. Saints CBs are running with opposing WRs, looking at them the whole time, and jumping when they jump. That’s it. A simple turn of the head to at least look for the ball would have changed the result. A no-call on the pass interference penalties is a plus, but several times this season balls have been underthrown and a simple look-back nets a possible interception.
At this point, I’m honestly not sure if the error is in the players themselves, or if the blame should more appropriately be put on the DB coach.
The eventual debut of DT Sheldon Rankins will only strengthen a surprisingly strong defensive line, and the return of CB Delvin Breaux will bring a much-needed boost to this young Saints secondary.