The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers face off for the second time this season on Sunday, this time for first place in the NFC South.
The Saints lost for the first time in two months last week, falling short in a 26-20 road defeat to the Los Angeles Rams. The Panthers have won 4 straight games, in large part due to a physical defense that gives up points grudgingly.
Today, we look at some key match ups to watch when New Orleans 2nd ranked offensive unit stares down the 2nd overall ranked defense of it's bitter rival from Carolina.
Saints pass offense vs. Panthers pass defense
New Orleans has the 2nd ranked passing attack in the league, averaging 267 yards per game. Quarterback Drew Brees has not put up the video game type of statistics he has in the past, in part because the team's running game has been so effective, but has still thrown for 3,029 yards with 16 touchdowns. Most important to the Saints success, Brees has thrown just 5 interceptions and been sacked only 13 times.
New Orleans offensive linemen Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Max Unger, Larry Warford, Senio Kelemete, and rookie 1st round pick Ryan Ramczyk have done an outstanding job of protecting their veteran signal caller. The effectiveness of the running game has also helped, not only freezing opposing linebackers and safeties, but allowing New Orleans to operate a dangerous play action attack.
The Saints often like to run a quick rhythm, short-intermediate attack that gets the ball out of Brees' hands fast and into the hands of his playmakers. The top 2 receivers in the Saints air attack continue to be 2nd year wide receiver Michael Thomas and one of the top candidates for this year's rookie of the year, running back Alvin Kamara. Thomas has 70 receptions for 805 yards with 2 touchdowns to lead the team, and Kamara has been a threat all over the field, adding 55 catches for 548 yards and 4 scores.
Former Panthers wideout Ted Ginn Jr. has been more consistent than many had expected for New Orleans, catching 42 passes for 641 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Saints have gotten very little production from the other receivers, although Mark Ingram has been a consistent check down option and weapon in the screen game. Wide receiver Willie Snead has had a year to forget, catching just 3 passes on the season, serving a league suspension, and struggling to gain separation against coverage. Brandon Coleman and Coby Fleener have had some nice moments, but neither have been consistent, and Fleener will miss this game with a concussion.
New Orleans struggled with a tough Los Angeles defense last week. The receivers struggled to get open consistently, and Brees was under more pressure than he's been since a week one loss at Minnesota, nullifying any downfield attack. Carolina brings similar talent, particularly within their front seven. The Panthers defense ranks 6th against the pass, surrendering only 205 yards per game, although they have given up over 300 yards passing in two of their last three contests.
Carolina has sacked the quarterback 32 times, led by defensive ends Mario Addison (7.5) and Julius Peppers (8.5), along with stud defensive tackle Kawonn Short's 4 takedowns. All three players can be disruptive to an opponent's pass pocket, and will be a handful for a Saints offensive line looking to bounce back. The Panthers may have the best linebacking trio in the league, with Pro Bowlers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis being complimented by the atheticism of Shaq Thompson. All three are playmakers sideline to sideline, and will be a huge challenge to Kamara and Thomas on short and intermediate routes.
Davis, a long time New Orleans nemesis, injured his thigh last week and although likely to play, may be limited. Kuechly is considered by many to be the best linebacker in the league, and he has had another terrific season with 2 fumble recoveries, returning one for a touchdown, a team high 3 interceptions and leading the team in tackles.
The Panthers have only 5 interceptions as a team this season, and none from their cornerbacks James Bradberry, Daryl Worley, and Captain Munnerlyn. Worley and Bradberry are vastly improved players in their second seasons, although the Saints picked on Worley with some success in the first meeting between the teams.
Saints run offense vs. Panthers run defense
The New Orleans ground attack ranks 3rd in the NFL, averaging 142 yards per game. Mark Ingram is on pace for his best season, running for 837 yards, 8 scores, and averaging 5 yards per carry. The Saints ground game has been paced by a dominant offensive line that has powerfully controlled the line of scrimmage and also athletically opened running lanes down the field. Alvin Kamara has contributed 546 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns while averaging an incredible 7.1 yards per carry.
Kamara and Ingram have been the "dynamic duo" New Orleans; each with over 1,000 all-purpose yards and combining for 48% of the Saints offensive total.
They will be challenged by a Panthers defense that ranks 3rd against the rush, giving up only 83 yards per game. Carolina has allowed only 4 rushing touchdowns, a league best, and only four opponents have rushed for over 100 yards as a team, with no back surpassing the 100-yard barrier. Defensive tackles Short, Star Lotulelei, and Vernon Butler have managed to dominate opposing offensive lines, allowing the Panthers playmaking linebackers to stop backs in their tracks.
No team has rushed for more yards against Carolina this season than the 159 that the Saints rolled up when these teams met earlier this year. New Orleans must repeat that success this time around, after an inconsistent performance against Los Angeles last week.
What to Look For
Aside from a herculean individual effort from Kamara of 188 total yards, an explosive 74 yard scoring run, and some spectacular yards after receptions, the Saints offense struggled against the Rams last week. Outside of that long touchdown, Kamara and Ingram combined for just 44 yards rushing and under 3 yards per carry, while Brees was harrassed and hurried all game.
Brees has had a prolific career against the Panthers, averaging 296 yards per game, 67% completion percentage and 43 touchdown with only 19 interceptions in 21 career games while with the Saints. The Saints match up well against Carolina's primary Cover 2 coverage scheme, allowing for open space in the middle of the field, if the line can give it's quarterback the time to survey coverage. Ingram and Kamara will be in a riveting battle with the Panthers linebackers all afternoon, with the winner of that match up potentially laying claim to the sole lead of the NFC South at the end of the night.