The New Orleans Saints showed the world that they aren't quite ready to throw in the towel on the 2017 season just yet. The Saints marched into Bank of America Stadium on Sunday afternoon and kicked sand in the face of a bitter division rival, defeating the Carolina Panthers 34-13.
New Orleans played better in every facet of the game than they had previously shown over the first two weeks of the season, and raised their record to 1-2, heading into a London game against the Miami Dolphins next Sunday. After such a convincing victory against a divisional opponent on the road, it certainly isn't time to make playoff reservations just yet, but there are a handful of Saints who most definitely deserve game balls for their performance from the weekend.
Game Ball #1 — WRs Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr.
Thomas is the Saints top threat in the passing game, and it isn't like he has played badly. He did have a team leading 10 receptions entering this game. Thomas has just been unable to be a difference maker, with the Saints receiving corps thinned because of the suspension of Willie Snead. New Orleans got Thomas involved in this game early and often, catching 5 passes for 50 yards and his first touchdown of the season on the Saints opening drive.
Thomas would finish the game with 7 receptions for 87 yards and that 1st Quarter touchdown. He was a focus of the Panthers coverage schemes, yet continued to make the big plays to keep drives alive. Pro Football Focus graded Thomas' performance at a 151.6 rating (calculated QB rating when that player is targeted), the 3rd best among NFL wideouts Sunday afternoon.
A perfect example of how important Thomas is to this offense occurred midway through the 3rd Quarter. Thomas was lined up in the slot on the left side, with Ted Ginn lined up to his left along the sideline. The two crossed routes, with Thomas running a shorter sideline pattern and Ginn straight up the field towards the end zone. Panthers safety Kurt Coleman reacted to Thomas' route, but Carolina's other deep safety Mike Adams had too much ground to cover to get to Ginn, leaving the speedster in one-on-one coverage with Panthers cornerback James Bradberry.
The result was a beautifully executed 40-yard touchdown pass to Ginn, who made a very nice adjustment and catch on a slightly under thrown pass by Drew Brees. It was one of just two catches on the day for Ginn, for 44 yards and that touchdown, along with adding a 15-yard run on an end around, but he did exactly what the Saints expect him to do for this offense. For the first time this season, he legitimately threatened the opposing defense with his speed downfield. Earlier in the game, Brees and Ginn nearly connected on a route down the field that would have resulted in a touchdown as well. His continued downfield threat will spread the opposition for the other Saints playmakers.
Game Ball #2 — CB Ken Crawley
Crawley saw his first action of the 2017 regular season, starting alongside P.J. Williams due to the injury absence of rookie Marshon Lattimore and veteran Sterling Moore. Crawley led the defense with 9 tackles on the day, and both he and Williams challenged nearly every throw, playing especially aggressive on the quick Carolina slant routes in the 1st half. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Crawley was the 8th best rated corner in the league yesterday, with an 85.2 grade, while Williams was 18th at a PFF grade of 82, grabbing the Saints first interception of the season. The Panthers receiving corps isn't the strongest in the league, but the improved play of the cornerbacks yesterday limited big plays and handcuffed the Carolina offense to just 8 completions to their outside receivers.
Game Ball #3 — The Saints Offensive Line
Playing against one of the best front seven units in the league, and undermanned with the injuries to tackles Zach Strief and Terron Armstead, the Saints line was expected to struggle Sunday afternoon. The combination of Andrus Peat and rookie Ryan Ramczyk at tackle, Larry Warford and Senio Kelemete at guard and Max Unger at center played well in their second week together. The Saints rushed for 149 yards, and allowed only 1 sack on quarterback Drew Brees, keeping him mostly unhurried and allowing him to move around in the pass pocket most of the afternoon. According to Pro Football Focus, Brees was pressured on less than 17% of his throws. The right side of Warford and Ramczyk played particularly well in the rushing attack and on screen passes, allowing multiple big gains during the day. Warford graded out as the best lineman for New Orleans according to PFF, earning a grade of 80.8, 13th best among the league's interior linemen.
Game Ball #4 — The Saints Defense
The much maligned New Orleans defense sacked Cam Newton 4 times, and forced him into 3 interceptions, while holding Panther quarterbacks to less than 58% completion percentage. Carolina fared no better in the running game, rushing for just 120 yards on the day. The Saints still need better play from it's linebackers and interior pass rush, OLB A.J. Klein and Sheldon Rankins were among the lowest graded at their positions according to PFF, and they struggled to contain Carolina rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. Still, the Saints defense controlled the Panthers offense most of the afternoon, and should only get better as many of their young players continue to develop.
Game Ball #5 — Head Coach Sean Payton
Payton's 95th regular season victory came after a week where he was under more criticism than at any time during his twelve years with the Saints. He and his staff responded by designing a quick rhythm passing attack and power running game plan to pressure an outstanding Panthers defense, along with a defense that aggressively attacked Carolina's short passing game, pressuring them into mistakes down the field. More importantly, New Orleans seemed more focused and organized than at any point in this short season thus far.
Don't start buying your playoff tickets just yet, Saints fans, but a convincing victory on the road against such a bitter divisional rival should be a sign of encouragement as New Orleans moves into the next quarter of the 2017 regular season.
Who impressed you the most in the Saints win over Carolina?
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Michael Thomas/Ted Ginn
Ken Crawley/P.J. Williams
Saints offensive line