The New Orleans Saints eight game winning streak came to an end last Sunday in a 26-20 defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Rams on the road. The Saints (8-3) now host the Carolina Panthers, with an identical 8-3 record, in an important battle for first place in the NFC South. This is the second meeting between these two this season, with New Orleans topping their division rivals, 34-13, during a week 3 contest in Carolina.
The rematch is the biggest game of the season to date for New Orleans, with the winner grabbing a stronger foothold for playoff positioning in the NFC. Let's have a look at how the Saints defense matches up against Carolina's offensive unit.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs PANTHERS RUN OFFENSE
New Orleans appeared to control Rams running back Todd Gurley statistically last week, holding the talented back to 74 yards rushing. The reality is that Los Angeles had an offensive game plan more focused towards the pass, and specifically play action, and the Saints were unable to shut down the running game enough to nullify the Rams play action attack. The New Orleans run defense currently ranks 18th in the league, and they now face one of the better running attacks in the league with Carolina. The Panthers rank 5th in the NFL on the ground, averaging 129 yards per game. Running back Jonathan Stewart (486 yards, 2 touchdowns), and quarterback Cam Newton (464 yards, 5 touchdowns) are the team's primary threats, and old foes of New Orleans. One of the staples of the Panthers running game is the read option, which is perfectly suited to the athleticism of Carolina's most dangerous weapon, Newton. Stopping him is paramount to the Saints defensive success.
New Orleans defensive end Cam Jordan is a veteran of many Saints-Panthers showdowns, and the Cam vs. Cam rivalry is always worth the price of admission. Key to the Saints success against Carolina's running game is the play of the end position on the other side. Trey Hendrickson and Hau'oli Kikaha look to replace the solid run defense and pass rushing production from Alex Okafor, lost to an Achilles injury two weeks ago. Defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, and Tyeler Davison will need to control the middle of line, in order to eliminate the lethal Panthers inside rushes. Linebackers A.J. Klein and Craig Robertson, along with safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell will have the challenge of reading the Panthers blocking schemes, and reacting to what Newton's initial reads are. They are among the Saints leading tacklers, but the team has struggled at times with gap control and containment, a recipe for disaster against Carolina.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs PANTHERS PASS OFFENSE
If there was any doubt that Marshon Lattimore is deserving of defensive rookie of the year, and perhaps even consideration of defensive MVP, then just look back at the last two games. Lattimore has been sidelined with an ankle injury suffered in the first series two weeks ago against Washington. Since then the Saints have given up 69% completion percentage, 322 yards passing and 3 touchdowns to Kirk Cousins of the Redskins, and followed that up by surrendering 354 yards and 2 touchdowns to the Rams Jared Goff last week. Lattimore's absence from the lineup added to the fact that the Saints were also without their other starting cornerback, Ken Crawley missed last week due to injury also, as well as Okafor. Replacements P.J. Williams, Devante Harris, and Sterling Moore were not able to provide the type of tight coverage that Lattimore and Crawley have, and safeties Vaccaro, Bell, and Marcus Williams have been inconsistent in coverage as well. New Orleans also has not been able to pressure the quarterback as consistently with just their front four, forcing the team to blitz more frequently to apply pressure with an undermanned secondary behind them. The Saints were able to sack Cousins and Goff a combined 6 times, with Jordan accounting for 3 sacks, but the New Orleans front four must be able to generate consistent pressure to allow the team more defensive options.
Carolina's passing game ranks just 24th in the league. Cam Newton has thrown 11 interceptions, against 14 passing touchdowns, and has been sacked 26 times. Newton also injured the thumb on his throwing hand during last week's victory over the Jets. He will almost certainly play this game, but the severity of the injury could potentially affect his release. An even bigger injury concern for the Panthers is to All-Pro tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen returned to the Panthers lineup last week after an eight game absence due to a surgically repaired foot, only to leave the game after aggravating the same foot. X-rays early this week were negative, but Olsen's status for this game could be in question. Without this long time Saints nemesis, Newton's most dangerous weapon in the passing game has been 1st round draft pick running back Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey has contributed 268 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground, but has added 468 yards and 3 scores through the air and leads the Panthers with 59 receptions. Former 2nd round pick Devin Funchess has blossomed into a reliable target for Newton in his third season, already hitting career high marks with 50 catches for 643 yards and 5 touchdowns. Tight end Ed Dickson has been an adequate replacement for Olsen, but wideouts Russell Shepard and rookie Curtis Samuel have not been the consistent threats Carolina had hoped after trading Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo last month.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Lattimore missed the first meeting against the Panthers with injury, but Crawley and P.J. Williams each played extremely well against a pedestrian Carolina receiving corps. The Saints forced Newton into 3 interceptions, while sacking him 4 times and holding him to 167 yards passing and just 16 yards rushing. The New Orleans secondary should be able to lock up the Panthers receivers, particularly if they get Lattimore and Crawley back into the lineup. Both players returned to practice on Wednesday. The Saints must find a way to contain McCaffrey out of the backfield. He burned them for 9 receptions and 101 yards in the first meeting. New Orleans must once again bottle up Jonathan Stewart, after holding him to 57 yards in their first go-around.
Saints-Panthers games have always been red-line levels emotionally, particularly when Newton and the Carolina offense is on the field. Expect much of the same, with this such a meaningful and important game for both teams. From a personel aspect, this Saints defense matches up well against the Panthers style. The major question is this: How well will a Saints defense that had progressed so far respond after being on the ropes in each of the last two weeks in such a huge situation?
Which Panthers player is the biggest threat to the Saints defense?
This poll is closed
Newton....it's always Newton