The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers meet for the third time this season on Sunday. The Saints meet their divisional rival in the friendly confines of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where they have not hosted a playoff game since defeating the Detroit Lions in January, 2012. The Saints defeated Carolina in their two previous meeting this year, a 34-13 October win in Carolina, followed by a 31-21 defeat of the Panthers in early December.
New Orleans won the NFC South this season in part because of a vastly improved and aggressive defense, which will be a key to any playoff run the team hopes to achieve. Let's have a look at how well the 17th ranked overall Saints defense matches up against a Carolina offense that ranks 19th in the league.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. PANTHERS PASS DEFENSE
One of the major reasons for the Saints improvement from three straight 7-9 seasons to an 11-5 division championship this season is the improvement of their pass defense. New Orleans ranks 15th against the pass, allowing 224.8 yards per game, a far cry from hovering near the bottom of the league, as they have in recent seasons. Defensive end Cam Jordan, with a career high 13 sacks, is a candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He leads an aggressive pass rush from defensive coordinator Dennis Allen that has 42 quarterback sacks for the year.
George Johnson (2.5 sacks) has rushed the passer well in recent weeks from the opposite end spot after being signed as a free agent following the injury losses to Alex Okafor, Hau'oli Kikaha, and Trey Hendrickson. The rookie third round pick Hendrickson (2 sacks) has missed the last month with an ankle injury, but has returned to limited practice, and is a possibility to suit up against Carolina. Interior linemen Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata have the capability to be pass rushing threats inside, and have done much better at doing so over the last half of the regular season. The Saints are one of the better blitzing teams in the league, and safety Vonn Bell is second on the team with 4.5 sacks. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton is one of the most mobile quarterbacks in the league, and New Orleans could use their most athletic linebacker, Craig Robertson, to spy Newton for containment when he scrambles.
The Panthers have only averaged 192 yards per game through the air, ranking 28th in the league. They have not done a good job protecting their franchise quarterback, allowing 35 sacks and a number of big hits. Newton's most effective receiver this season has been rookie 1st round running back Christian McCaffrey, who has 651 yards and five touchdowns on a team leading 80 receptions. Wide receiver Devin Funchess leads the Panthers with 840 yards and 8 touchdowns on his 63 catches. All-Pro tight end Greg Olsen has missed significant time with injury this season, including both games against the Saints, but looks to be a full go for this playoff showdown. He has made a career out of torturing New Orleans defenders. Tight end Ed Dickson had 30 receptions for 437 yards while filling in for Olsen, and receiver Russell Shepard can make plays in the open field. Saints all-rookie and pro bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore also missed both games against the Panthers this season, and will likely be locked up on Funchess or perhaps Olsen when he lines up outside. Funchess had 4 catches in each game against the Saints earlier this season, for a combined 118 yards and a score. New Orleans cornerbacks Ken Crawley and P.J. Williams did a nice job of neutralizing the Panthers receivers even without 11th overall pick Lattimore in the lineup.
SAINTS RUSH DEFENSE vs. PANTHERS RUSH OFFENSE
The Saints have been inconsistent against the run in 2017. They rank 16th in the league, giving up 111.7 points per game, but surrender 4.4 yards per carry, ranking 28th. New Orleans has had great moments of run defense, limiting Atlanta's talented running game to only 67 yards two weeks ago is a great example. Cam Jordan is one of the NFL's most underrated run defenders on the edge, and defensive tackles Rankins and Tyeler Davison have been disruptive interior run defenders at times this season. Their ability to tie up lineman and win their match ups will also free up linebackers Robertson and Manti Te'o, as well as safety Vonn Bell, to make plays in the rush lanes. The New Orleans cornerbacks play a vital role against the run as well. Lattimore, Crawley, and P.J. Williams are solid in run support, but their ability to control their coverage duties one on one allows the Saints defense to devote an extra safety close to the line of scrimmage, as well as limit the effectiveness of a play action attack.
The Panthers have the league's 4th ranked rushing attack, producing 131 yards per game. Their leading rusher is Newton, with 754 yards, 5.4 average per carry, and 6 touchdowns. Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey has been more of a threat in the passing game, but has rushed for 435 yards and two scores. Veteran back Jonathan Stewart (6 touchdowns) continues to be a threat near the goal line, but has only produced 680 yards rushing and an average of 3.4 yards per carry. When Carolina utilizes their read option attack, New Orleans must get interior penetration, and the onus will be on Jordan, Robertson, and Te'o to read and contain the athletic Newton on the outside.
WHAT TO EXPECT
The Carolina offensive success has always been solely dependent on the legs and big play ability of Cam Newton. The Saints can expect even more runs from Newton is this win or go home situation, and must be able to contain the quarterback to have success. New Orleans rolled up 6 sacks in their meetings against the Panthers this season, and pressured Newton into 3 interceptions in their first match up. The Saints held Carolina to less than 300 total yards in each of their games this year, but must find a way to contain McCaffrey out of the backfield. The rookie hasn't been as dynamic as his New Orleans counterpart, Alvin Kamara, but had 14 receptions in two games against the Saints, going over 100 yards in their first meeting. The Saints defensive backs match up well against the other Carolina receiving threats, and expect one of the corners to match up against Olsen when he lines up in the slot. If the Saints can win their battles up front, they should be able to contain Newton and the Panthers running game, while also pressuring the quarterback into the mistakes that would help New Orleans to their first playoff win in four years.
PREDICTION: Saints 24, Panthers 20
Outside of Newton, which Panthers weapon could give the Saints defense the biggest problem?
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