The New Orleans Saints play their third of three consecutive road games when they take on a bitter division rival this week, the Carolina Panthers, on Monday night football. The Saints are coming off of a division clinching 28-14 victory last week over the Buccaneers, rebounding from their first loss in ten games the week before against Dallas. Like the Cowboys game however, the New Orleans offense struggled against Tampa Bay, totaling just 474 yards in the last two games combined. Despite recent struggles, the Saints still have a top ten offensive unit, and are averaging 34.4 points per game, second in the NFL. They travel to face a Carolina team desperate to salvage their season. The Panthers have lost five straight games after a 6-2 start, and are clinging to the slimmest of playoff hopes. Carolina's usually formidable defense has given up nearly 26 points per game and have forced just three turnovers over the past five games after forcing 15 in their first eight contests. Over the last few weeks, head coach Ron Rivera has taken over the defensive play calling from coordinator Eric Washington, and fired defensive assistants Brady Hoke and Jeff Imamura. Let's have a look at how these two units will match up against each other in a pivotal contest for each team.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. PANTHERS PASS DEFENSE
The Saints 11th ranked passing attack is averaging 264 yards per game. Quarterback Drew Brees leads the NFC with 31 touchdown passes and only 4 interceptions, while his 75.7% completion percentage is on pace to break his own single season record. Brees has two of the best receiving threats in the league in wideout Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara. Thomas has 8 touchdown catches, his 102 receptions are second in the league, while his 1,218 receiving yards are third in the NFC. He has been productive against nearly every coverage he faces, and has established himself as one of the NFL's best receivers. Kamara has 70 receptions for 591 yards and 4 scores, and can threaten a defense from out of the backfield, from the slot, or when lined up wide. Thomas and Kamara have accounted for 54% of Brees' completions and 52% of his passing yardage. While the talents of the two stars is undeniable, the failure of anyone else in the Saints stable of pass targets to threaten a defense is an increasing problem. Tight end Benjamin Watson (31 receptions, 337 yards and 2 touchdowns) and rookie wideout Tre'quan Smith (22-371, 4) are the team's third and fourth leading receivers. Smith has been erratic, going without a reception in six games this season, including 3 of the last 4 contests. He also has gamebreaking potential, exhibited in a 10 catch, 157 yard performance against the Philadelphia Eagles last month. Watson is a solid veteran receiver and terrific blocker, but after 15 seasons in the league can no longer be counted on to produce consistently. Undrafted rookie wideout Keith Kirkwood has shown very good potential, catching nine passes for 134 yards and a score in five games. Neither he, or the other young targets in receiver Austin Carr and tight end Dan Arnold have been able to threaten defenses consistently, causing the team's passing offense to become predictable at times. New Orleans has released veteran Brandon Marshall without him playing a single snap, after signing him as a free agent last month, while Ted Ginn Jr. remains on injured reserve, meaning that the onus will remain on these largely unproven targets to produce. The Saints offensive line has struggled a bit in pass protection over the last couple games as well. Brees has only been sacked 13 times this season, and 3 over the last two games, but he has been under more pressure than at any other time this year. New Orleans may get left tackle Terron Armstead back from injury this week, which will undoubtedly cure many of their recent struggles along the edge.
The Panthers rank 20th against the pass, allowing 255 yards per game, and only three teams have allowed more than the 28 touchdown passes surrendered by their defense. Rookie second round pick Donte Jackson has played well at cornerback, and leads the team with 4 interceptions. Fellow corners James Bradberry and Captain Munnerlyn have struggled at times, while safeties Eric Reid and Mike Adams have been vulnerable on the back end. Carolina still has a talented front seven capable of taking over a game, but have just 30 sacks on the year. Dangerous defensive end Mario Addison leads the Panthers with 8 sacks, and is complimented by dominant tackle Kawaan Short and veteran Julius Peppers, who have combined for 7 sacks. Their linebackers can rush the passer well, they've gotten a combined five sacks from Shaq Thompson, Thomas Davis, and Luke Kuechly, but play a far greater role in pass coverage.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints offensive line vs. Panthers defensive line ~
It remains to be seen whether Armstead will return to the lineup this week, but the line's recent struggles go beyond Bushrod at left tackle. Tackles Ryan Ramczyk, and either Armstead or Bushrod must win their edge match ups against Mario Addison, Julius Peppers, and Wes Horton to keep Brees upright. Guards Larry Warford, Andrus Peat, and center Max Unger have not been as dominant inside, leading to some interior disruption. The Panthers have a powerful trio at defensive tackle in Kawaan Short, Dontari Poe, and Vernon Butler capable of destroying any offensive scheme. When Brees and the Saints passing attack has struggled against the Panthers in the past, it has often been due to disruption inside causing him to rush his throws. These inside battles will also be vital to the Saints ability to forge an effective rushing attack and maintain important offensive balance. This has always been a physical and punishing rivalry, and the winner of this game will most likely be the victor of the battles up front.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE vs. PANTHERS RUN DEFENSE
New Orleans averages 125 yards per game on the ground, ranking ninth in the NFL, and their 21 rushing touchdowns are a league best. Alvin Kamara leads the team with 793 yards, averaging 4.6 per carry, and his 11 rushing scores is second best in the league. Mark Ingram has added 519 yards and five touchdowns, and is just one rushing score from moving past Deuce McAllister for the franchise's all-time leader in that category. Ingram and Kamara have three 100-yd rushing performances between them, and combine to form the best running back duo in the NFL. The Saints offensive line established control of the trenches during the second half of the win over Tampa Bay last week, something that they've done most of the season, but had struggled opening holes for their backs in the previous six quarters.
Carolina has the league's 7th ranked rush defense, giving up just 98 yards per game and around 4.2 yards per carry. The success of their defense is fueled by the productivity of their linebackers. Kuechly and Thompson lead the team in tackles with 111 and 72, respectively, while Davis is a versatile and cagey veteran. The Panthers can also disrupt opposing blocking schemes up front, with defensive tackles Dontari Poe and Kawaan Short, keeping their linebackers free from blockers. Carolina's front seven is as physical and formidable as any in the league against the run, and have held eight of 13 opponents under 100 yards rushing.
~Matchup to Watch: Alvin Kamara/Mark Ingram vs. Luke Kuechly/Thomas Davis/Shaq Thompson ~
Carolina's linebackers are one of the few units in the league that were able to contain Kamara last season. The reigning offensive rookie of the year had 201 yards from scrimmage in three meetings against the Panthers, but he did score four key touchdowns. Ingram has one career 100-yd. rushing game in 13 games against the Panthers, scoring 7 career touchdowns and averaging 52 yards per game. One of the few criticisms of this fine linebacking unit is that they haven't shown the athleticism that they've exhibited in years past. They will certainly be put to the test against the Saints running back duo. Ingram and Kamara are arguably the most dangerous dual threat back combination in the league, and although they haven't been quite as dynamic in recent weeks, their talents fuel one of the NFL's top offenses.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
Historically, any success that the Saints offense has had against the Carolina defense has come through the air. Brees has averaged 299 passing yards in 23 games against the Panthers, with ten games of over 300 yards. Only 3 of those came in Carolina however, all losses. The Saints will look to establish their ground game early, mixing in short quick passes with a probable deep shot within the first drive or two. The ability to establish their running game early will keep the Panthers front seven off balance, likely giving Brees the time to rip apart a vulnerable Carolina secondary. Michael Thomas has made the Panthers defense his own personal playground, catching 30 passes for 434 yards and 3 scores in five meetings against them. Donte Jackson has had a solid rookie campaign, and will probably draw Thomas in any man to man assignments the team does play. Smith, Kirkwood, and the other pass receivers will once again be expected to provide some sort of productive threat in the event that Thomas is held in check. Their failure to do so will add fuel to the growing question of whether this Saints offense is truly up to the challenge of a championship chase as the team nears the postseason.
What is the biggest match up for the New Orleans offense against the Panthers defense?
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Saints OT's vs. Panthers DE's
Saints interior line vs. Panthers DT's
Kamara/Ingram vs. Kuechly/Davis/Thompson
Michael Thomas vs. Donte Jackson
Saints WR's/TE's vs. Panthers secondary