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Saints at Panthers: Five Players on the Spot, and a Coach under Scrutiny

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The New Orleans Saints have started the season 0-2 for the 4th consecutive year. Where do they go from here?

NFL: New England Patriots at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints must have missed the league memo that the football season officially started last week, because the majority of this team has taken the first two weeks off, judging by their play. Sunday afternoon's 36-20 pasting at the hands of the New England Patriots was the second week in a row that the Saints looked helpless on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.

The entire Saints organization is under question at the moment, seemingly on the brink of a lost year before the season is a month old. The Saints take on division rival Carolina this Sunday, with an opportunity to make a major statement that either all is not lost, or that perhaps the naysayers are correct in that it is time for major changes in this organization. Today we have highlighted five players that will be under a big microscope as the team takes the field at Carolina, along with the man at the top, ultimately responsible for the product we see on the field.

Kenny Vaccaro, safety

Vaccaro, subject of trade rumors that began just a few days after the opening Monday night loss at Minnesota, then responded by playing so poorly that he was benched during the loss to New England. After the game, Vaccaro publicly questioned the reason for his benching (Really Kenny? Might want to check that game film again.). Vaccaro was a high 1st round draft choice in 2013, and his rookie season remains his best, when he earned a spot on the NFL All-Rookie team. He has always been among the team leader in tackles, but has failed to become the playmaker that a team should expect from a 15th overall selection (5 career interceptions and 4 forced fumbles). He has been a liability in coverage at times, despite his athletic ability. Remember that Vaccaro is on the last year of his contract, and will be a free agent at season's end. The Saints have drafted safeties in the 2nd round in each of the last two drafts, Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams, along with bringing back a reliable veteran in Rafael Bush. It appears as if the team is preparing to move on without Vaccaro, be it at year's end or perhaps a trade during this season. Against Carolina, Vaccaro will have the chance to show that he can still be an important piece in rebuilding this defense, and step into a leadership role alongside Cam Jordan for a very young group of defenders.

Alvin Kamara, running back

The Saints need their new offensive toy to start making plays. Kamara has only averaged 2.6 yards per rushing attempt. He does have 7 receptions, averaging around 10 yards per catch, but simply hasn't been the difference maker that many envisioned when New Orleans drafted him in the 3rd round this spring. On the other side of the field, Carolina has been working hard to get their own versatile rookie running back, Christian McCaffrey, involved in their offense. Sean Payton and Pete Carmichael have to do a better job at devising plays to get the ball to Kamara in space, and the rookie needs to start making plays to provide a big play threat for this offense. Carolina has arguably the most talented trio of linebackers in the league with Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson, and Kamara will need to challenge this group to spread the field and open things up for Drew Brees and the Saints passing attack.

A.J. Klein, linebacker

The Saints brought Klein over from division rival Carolina this offseason after getting an up-close look at the linebacker's skillset as Luke Kuechly's backup for four seasons. The hope was that Klein would add both athleticism and solid fundamentals to a New Orleans defense that have struggled with both in recent years. Early indication during the preseason was that their investment would pay big dividends, and Klein also played well early against the Vikings on opening day. He was a non-factor against the Patriots passing attack last Sunday, constantly trailing in coverage and unable to shut off the passing lanes available to New England's Tom Brady (along with every other Saints defender). The Panthers Cam Newton certainly does not have the same ability to spread the ball around and stretch a defense horizontally with the passing attack. Where Newton is most dangerous is in the running game, where he utilizes the read option attack and will use either his running backs or his ability to make plays with his legs. Klein is very familiar with Newton and the Panthers offense, and he (along with Alex Anzalone and Craig Robertson) will be responsible for containing the dangerous Panthers running game. Carolina will be without All-Pro tight end Greg Olsen for this one, but Christian McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart must be controlled on short and intermediate routes to limit Newton's target options and hopefully forcing him into mistakes.

Ted Ginn Jr., wide receiver

Another player the Saints signed away from the Panthers this offseason, it was expected that Ginn would provide both a deep threat to replace the traded Brandin Cooks, as well as an explosive element to the New Orleans kick return game. Ginn has yet to provide any of the explosive plays he was brought in for, has provided little downfield threat for the New Orleans offense, and has consistently run poor routes, particularly in the red zone. Carolina will likely try to match up their best cornerback, James Bradberry, on Saints top wideout Michael Thomas whenever possible, leaving Ginn matched up against Captain Munnerlyn or Daryl Worley. Like Klein, Ginn knows the Carolina system and players, which could give him a slight advantage in preparation for the Panthers defensive tendencies.

Sheldon Rankins, defensive tackle

The Saints 1st round draft choice of 2016 has played somewhat below expectations thus far in 2017. Rankins was expected to expand on the potential he showed down the stretch last season, when he finished the year with 4 sacks over the final eight games after missing the first half with a broken leg. Rankins was to team with David Onyemata and Tyeler Davison to provide a disruptive interior force on the opponent's quarterback, along with shutting down the inside running game. Quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Tom Brady were not pressured on the inside whatsoever within the first two games, allowing them to step up in their pass pocket at will, easily survey the field, and torch the Saints pass defense with 793 yards passing on an incredible 80% completion percentage. The onus is on last year's 12th overall selection to be the disruptive force that he was drafted for, provide pressure up the middle into Cam Newton's face, and shut down Carolina's inside rushing attack.

Sean Payton, head coach

His team has looked helpless and woefully overmatched both offensively and defensively during two opening losses, and Sean Payton is under more scrutiny than at any time during his 12 seasons as the Saints coach. Rightfully so. His Saints have completely re-built their defensive unit numerous times over the last five years, yet New Orleans continues to sit at the bottom of the league in defense. The offensive production that has been dealt away; Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills, Brandin Cooks has not been adequately replaced, leaving the Saints offense at times unable to match the scoring output their defense is surrendering. Free agency moves that have backfired, player personnel that hasn't developed, and questions about Payton's message to the team have all been under fire.

Remember that this is still a young team, with two new defensive coaches in prominent roles. Payton's role in rebuilding the Saints since his arrival in 2006 cannot be disputed, nor can his place in New Orleans history. NFL coaches are judged for the product that they lead onto the field, and the cold reality is this: the New Orleans Saints are 21-29 over their last three seasons plus two games. That is a record that gets coaches fired, even Super Bowl winning coaches. Saints Tom Benson is extremely loyal to Payton, and has given him ample opportunity to turn a team mired in mediocrity around. A major microscope should be under coach Payton in this game. It's a game against a division rival, with a chance to turn a season around that is in danger of spiraling out of control. It is time to see what mettle that this young team and it's beleaguered head coach truly has with their backs against the wall.

Poll

Which Saint is under the biggest scrutiny against Carolina?

This poll is closed

  • 24%
    Kenny Vaccaro
    (219 votes)
  • 0%
    Alvin Kamara
    (5 votes)
  • 1%
    A.J. Klein
    (13 votes)
  • 4%
    Ted Ginn Jr.
    (38 votes)
  • 1%
    Sheldon Rankins
    (9 votes)
  • 68%
    Sean Payton
    (604 votes)
888 votes total Vote Now