Not that they are stooges, but Kenny Vaccaro, Marshon Lattimore, and Ken Crawley are integral to the success of the Saints defense.
"If we want to be successful and get back to what we were doing when we won those eight games, then we got to get back to those things that we've been doing. We kind of let that slip this last game a lot." - Kenny Vaccaro
Allow me to simplify the above quote.
A big part of what the Saints were doing during their 8-game win streak involved a healthy secondary. That’s it!
No magic elixir or Merlin potion will help a unit when it’s not healthy. Only depth helps there, and unfortunately the defense isn’t equipped to lose Dennis Allen’s top 3 cover guys on defense.
Furthermore, the first two have been what’s allowed Vaccaro to standout, which is why upon his return the defense didn’t really see a significant jump.
So it’s great news that Lattimore and Crawley are possibly returning, right?
Sure, but It’s not going to be an automatic cure-all either. The unit will have to re-sync, and I’m not sure this is the best game to have it happen in. Just like Vaccaro saw rust upon his return, so will Lattimore and Crawley. And if they give up plays like Vaccaro did last week versus the Rams, then they could hurt the overall efforts.
A game is never lost by one or two plays, but multiple plays that have an impact then subsequent trickle down effect. With Marcus Williams’ availability in question because of a groin issue, the secondary may again be prone to communication breakdowns because of an unfamiliar face.
While we’d like to think this game will be a bounce back game because of the team’s Week 3 successes, fans and the team will need to be wary of a hot Panthers team that has some continuity going for them. Let’s have a look at this week’s Keys to Success.
Last time I talked about how Cam Newton wasn’t a great QB. Great playmaker, but not a great QB. In the team’s first matchup against the Panthers, Carolina was still trying to use Newton as a pocket passer and well... it didn’t work. Since then, things have changed.
Newton had off-season surgery on his throwing shoulder that hindered his preparations for the 2017 season. In the Panthers' third game, Newton completed 17-of-26 passes for 167 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions and ran three times for 16 yards and a touchdown as Carolina took a 21-point beating from the Saints. Newton had a passing-efficiency rating of 43.7.
In the eight games since, Newton has compiled an 84.7 passer rating and run 69 times for 418 yards and four touchdowns.
Newton is back to using his legs to be a playmaker, and now that he’s normal, so is the direction of that team. Week 3 is the past, and the Saints defense must not get caught thinking that anything from that game means diddly squat for this one.
Others Stay the Same
Greg Olsen is a threat, and if you don’t think him returning is a cause for concern, just go back and look at what Vernon Davis nearly did to the Saints in the Washington game. If you recall, earlier in the season it was said that the reason the Panthers were asking Newton to pass the ball so much was because he missed a good chunk of the offseason and they wanted to get him reps. Does that logic for Olsen not apply here? I think they will absolutely want to get him the ball and start work him in so that they can get him ready for a playoff run late in the season. The presence of Christian McCaffrey will probably open things up for him or even worse Olsen’s presence will make McCaffrey more of a threat than he was in the first matchup, which could be just as detrimental.
But Something New is always Welcome
Last week, we saw Drew Brees and company uncharacteristically fail to adjust to things Wade Phillips and the Rams were doing. That tape is now out there, and you can bet the Panthers will try to do some similar things to slow down the Saints offense. Sean Payton and Pete Carmichael will need to add a few new wrinkles in this game to counter some of those things. What could those wrinkles be? I have no clue, but perhaps if one of them is Willie Snead being featured, people will stop coming up with conspiracy theories on why he’s not being utilized.
Player to Watch: Kenny Vaccaro, SS
That tandem of McCaffrey and Olsen I talked about earlier - Vaccaro is going to draw the assignment of either at various times on Sunday. He talked about knocking the rust off mentally last week, so hopefully we’ll see him closer to form on Sunday, because the Saints will need his coverage ability. Payton said he’d be one of the players they’d rely on down the stretch, and I can’t think of a game that needs his skill set more than this one. His ability to cover TEs, RBs, and spy the QB should be on display at various times Sunday.
Random Thought - Payton said he expected special teams to improve down the stretch. One way to do that is to get one of its four core members back in Craig Robertson. The only way to do that is to get Alex Anzalone back from IR, and with the latest news (ESPN) that Zach Strief is done for the year, that could become a reality.
There’s no way around it. As long as the defense continues to be injured, this is going to be a tough game. This is no longer an offensive team, and the 8-game win streak was directly tied to the health/play of the defense. Sean and Drew have talked about that winning formula lately, and it definitely includes a stingy defense. If the secondary gets it together this week, the Saints stop the one-game skid. But if it’s more of the same on the back-end, Saints fans will again be holding their hearts in the final minutes. Who Dat!