The New Orleans Saints are playing in there first playoff game since January, 2014. Standing between the Saints and a trip to the Divisional round is an old foe, their NFC South rival Carolina Panthers. The Saints and Panthers have played each other twice this season, with New Orleans taking a 34-13 game in Carolina in week 3, then winning the week 13 rematch in New Orleans by a 31-21 score. The third battle in this year's trilogy between these two will be in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where the Saints host their first playoff game since a 45-28 defeat of the Detroit Lions on January 7, 2012.
When two very familiar opponents line up against each other in a huge match up, there are not usually alot of surprises from a game planning perspective. Let's have a look at how well the 2nd ranked Saints offense matches up against a Panthers defense that ranks 7th in the league.
SAINTS RUN GAME vs. PANTHERS RUN DEFENSE
New Orleans averages 129.4 yards per game on the ground, ranking 5th in the league. Mark Ingram had the best season of his career, rushing for 1,124 yards while averaging just a shade under 5 yards per carry and rushing for 12 touchdowns. He is perfectly complimented in the Saints backfield by the talents of rookie Alvin Kamara, who ran for 728 yards and 8 scores while averaging an amazing 6.1 yards per rush. Both backs earned a trip to the Pro Bowl, the first running back duo to achieve such a feat in 42 years. Ingram and Kamara are the most statistically productive running back tandem in NFL history over a season, surpassing the mark set by Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack of the Cleveland Browns in 1985. The prolific New Orleans running game is led by one of the best offensive lines in the league, both strong enough to control the point of attack and athletic enough to be effective into the second level of the defense.
Carolina is 3rd in the NFL against the run, allowing just 88 yards per game. The Panthers have held opponents to less than 100 yards rushing in nine of their sixteen games. Their success starts with one of the best front seven in the league. Defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short destroy opposing offensive lines inside, disrupting blocking schemes and often disrupt a running play before it develops. The Panthers have argueably the most active linebacking corps in the NFL, led by All-Pro Luke Kuechly, and complimented by the atheticism of Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson on the outside. The trio do an outstanding job of attacking an opposing backfield, stay disciplined to shut off cutback lanes, and are athletic enough to contain outside rushes.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. PANTHERS PASS DEFENSE
Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 4,334 yards and 23 touchdowns this season, throwing only 8 interceptions. His 72% completion percentage was not only the highest of his brilliant career, but set a new NFL record. Brees' primary target was second year wide receiver Michael Thomas, who set a new franchise record with 104 receptions, producing 1,245 yards and five touchdowns.
Thomas has established himself as one of the best intermediate targets in the league, using good size, along with great hands and body control to shield defenders and make the tough catches in traffic. Alvin Kamara is already considered one of the most dangerous all-purpose threats in the league as a rookie, and was second on the team with 81 catches for 826 yards and 5 touchdowns. Ted Ginn Jr. had one of the most productive seasons of his career, catching 53 passes for 787 yards and four touchdowns, and earning the trust of his veteran quarterback.
Despite owning the league's 5th ranked passing attack, the Saints have struggled at times moving the ball through the air. Brandon Coleman and Willie Snead IV have not provided any kind of consistent secondary threat, and the team has not gotten any production from the tight end position. New Orleans has just a 37.6% conversion percentage on 3rd down, ranking 19th in the league, primarily because the Saints have not had the type of diversified passing game they've attacked defenses with in the past.
Carolina has surrendered an average of 229 yards passing per game, ranking 18th in the league, and have allowed over 250 yards passing in each of their last six games. They have intercepted just 10 passes this season, led by 3 from Luke Kuechly. Carolina's athletic linebackers drop into the passing lanes extremely well, and are able to cover most running backs out of the backfield, but will be severely challenged by Kamara. Panthers second year cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley are promising talents, but have struggled with consistency, while Carolina safeties Kurt Coleman, Mike Adams, Jairus Byrd and Colin Jones are heady and instinctive players, but are often at an athletic disadvantage.
The Panthers success against the pass comes from a fierce pass rush up front, and Carolina was among the league leaders with 50 sacks. Mario Addison and Julius Peppers, each with 11 sacks, will bring heavy pressure from the outside, and Kawann Short (7.5 sacks) is one of the finest interior rushers in the league. The Saints offensive line has allowed Brees to be sacked just 20 times this year, but keep an eye on left tackle Terron Armstead, who has been in and out of the lineup with injuries all year.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
Carolina has allowed only 7 rushing touchdowns all year, but the Saints have 4 of them in their two meetings. The two highest rushing outputs against the Panthers this year have come courtesy of New Orleans, who rushed for 149 and 148 yards, respectively, in the two games against each other. The Panthers have not had an answer for Michael Thomas, who had a combined 12 catches for 157 yards and two scores while torturing the Carolina secondary. Brees was efficient, while also having success down the field and spreading the ball around well while avoiding key turnovers. The Saints had early drive success against the Panthers defense in each of their two games, keeping a solid Carolina defense on their heels and allowing them to maintain a balanced attack throughout the game.
Where will the Saints have the most success against the Carolina defense?
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