The New Orleans Saints culminate three straight away games with a trip into Charlotte, N.C. tonight to play the Carolina Panthers on Monday night football. The Saints have quietly become one of the stingiest defenses in the NFL. During the season's opening month they gave up passing yardage at an alarming rate, and a combined 48 and 37 points to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons in weeks 1 and 3 respectively. In the ten games since, the Saints have allowed an opponent to score more than 30 points just one time, giving up an average of just 18 points per game, and no opponent has scored more than 20 points in their last five games. They rank 14th in total defense, surrendering 348 yards per contest, and have forced 20 turnovers. New Orleans now travels to face a Carolina Panthers team that has lost five straight after a 6-2 start. The Panthers offense ranks 9th in total yardage, averaging 378 yards per game, and scores an average of 24.9 points per contest. Carolina has averaged only 20.8 points during their losing streak though, and have turned the ball over 9 times in that span.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. PANTHERS PASS OFFENSE
New Orleans has given up an average of 271 passing yards per game through the air, ranking 28th in the league. After some early season struggles, they have fortified their pass defense, particularly with the elimination of big plays. New Orleans has held four of the last five opponents under 210 yards passing, and have forced 15 turnovers in the last seven contests. The Saints have intercepted 11 passes so far this year, led by two each from Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Williams, and Chris Banjo. Lattimore and Eli Apple have combined to make a solid cornerback duo, able to hold opposing wideouts in check. P.J. Williams has stepped up his play since the acquisition of Apple in October, flourishing at times in a slot coverage role as the team's fifth defensive back. At safety, Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell have fortified the back end with better communication, along with the athleticism to close on the ball quickly once the pass is thrown. The Saints trio of linebackers have provided better coverage at the position than the team has had in a number of years. Demario Davis, Alex Anzalone, and A.J. Klein have helped to all but eliminate opposing tight ends, and have done a magnificent job containing backs out of the backfield. Each have proven to be capable pass rushers as well, combining for six sacks and a number of pressures. One key to the New Orleans success against the pass recently has been their ability to apply heavy pressure on the quarterback. They have 41 sacks this season, many of which have come from one of the most disruptive defensive lines in the league. Cameron Jordan looks well on his way to another All-Pro campaign. He has 12 sacks, only one off his career high from last year, and leads the team with 18 quarterback hits. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins has added 8 sacks and 15 hits on the quarterback, developing into the disruptive force that New Orleans had hoped for when selecting him with the 12th overall pick in the 2016 draft. Defensive end Marcus Davenport was the team's 14th overall selection in this year's draft, and has shown flashes of being a dominant presence up front. Davenport has four sacks and numerous pressures in ten games, and will be an important compliment to Rankins and Jordan as the team heads into the postseason.
Carolina has a middle of the pack passing game that averages 241 yards per game. Quarterback Cam Newton, in his first year under offensive coordinator Norv Turner, has completed a career high 68.8% of his passes and has thrown 24 touchdown passes, second most of his career. The Panthers have finally given their veteran star some legitimate receiving weapons to work with, even though they are without injured Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen. Christian McCaffrey leads the team, and all NFL running backs with 86 receptions and 701 yards with six touchdowns. First round draft pick D.J. Moore looks like a potential star, and has caught 47 passes for 676 yards and 2 touchdowns, showing the capability to excel on both deep patterns and shorter routes. Devin Funchess is a big-bodied wideout and a solid intermediate target that has 42 receptions for 526 yards and four scores, athletic rookie tight end Ian Thomas has 25 receptions in replacement of Olsen, while veteran Jarius Wright (31-337, 1) has provided a deep threat for Newton. Curtis Samuel has been a gamebreaking threat when he's managed to stay healthy, and has added 29 receptions for 364 yards and four scores. Newton traditionally takes alot of hits as he delivers the ball, but has only been sacked 25 times this season. He has struggled with a shoulder injury recently, something that could affect his ability to get the ball downfield accurately.
~ Matchup to Watch: Cam vs. Cam ~
Cam Jordan vs. Cam Newton has been a key battle to Saints-Panthers games since Newton entered the league as the first overall draft choice in 2011. Newton, who has been a one-man show for the Panthers most of his career, has a 7-8 record against the Saints through his career, including a 4-3 record at home. He has completed 58% of his career attempts against New Orleans, averaging 222 passing yards while throwing 23 touchdown passes and rushing for 7 more. Newton has also thrown 10 interceptions and been sacked 34 times by the Saints defense. Jordan has been responsible for 8 of those sacks, and is one of the few defensive ends in the league that can match up athletically with the Panthers signal caller. Mobile quarterbacks have given this Saints defense fits in 2018. It will be up to Jordan, Davenport, and Okafor to bring pressure from the edge without compromising containment, while Rankins and Onyemata will look to apply inside disruption to force Newton into mistakes.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. PANTHERS RUN OFFENSE
The Saints possess the league's top ranked rush defense, holding opponents to just 78 yards per game and only 3.6/carry. Only three teams have rushed for over 100 yards against them, and they have held elite backs such as Todd Gurley (Rams), Ezekiel Elliott (Cowboys), and Saquon Barkley (Giants) in check. The New Orleans front seven has dominated their match ups, snuffing out plays before they even develop. Defensive tackles Rankins, David Onyemata, Taylor Stallworth and Tyeler Davison have wrecked opposing offensive lines, while ends Jordan, Davenport, and Alex Okafor crash inside and are responsible for edge containment. The outstanding play of the line has allowed the Saints linebackers to run rampant through opposing backfields. Demario Davis leads the team with 95 tackles, and has upgraded the play of the entire defense with his physical and aggressive play. The team's defensive backs are good tacklers, and support the run well also, allowing very few broken plays.
Carolina has the NFL's second ranked rushing attack, averaging 137 yards per game with a league high 5.4 yards per rush. Christian McCaffrey leads the way with 926 yards on the ground, and has scored 7 touchdowns and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. McCaffrey has been dynamic in the open field and gets to the second level lightning fast, but has also been surprisingly effective between the tackles at times. Newton, always a threat with his legs, has added 473 rushing yards and 4 scores. The Panthers benefit from solid run blocking up front, and the Newton/McCaffrey combination presents a deadly threat to defenses both inside and outside.
~Matchup to Watch: Saints Linebackers vs. McCaffrey ~
McCaffrey is by far Carolina's most productive weapon. He has averaged over 125 yards per game and scored 13 touchdowns, including two 100-yd. rushing performances in the last three games. The Saints held McCaffrey to 16 yards rushing in all three games that they played Carolina last season, but had a far more difficult time with him as a pass receiver. He had two games of over 100 yards receiving against them, and had a total of 17 receptions for 235 yards and two touchdowns in three meetings. The Saints athletic linebackers will face a stiff challenge with McCaffrey, who will also often split out wide. The Panthers back will get a high number of touches, but the New Orleans defense must be able to contain his plays in the open field to be effective.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR AND PREDICTION:
The Panthers are desperately trying to save their season after five straight losses, but the Saints are in position to grab a firm stranglehold on the NFC's number 1 seed for the playoffs with a win. This is the 48th game in a very intense and physical rivalry between these two teams, with Carolina holding a narrow 24-23 edge in the series and a 12-11 advantage at home. Drew Brees is 12-11 against the Panthers as a Saint, and will look to take advantage of numerous mismatches his offense looks to have against a struggling Carolina secondary while looking to re-establish a season long dominance along the offensive line. Another fierce and physical battle should be expected on both sides of the ball, but if the Saints can put a few scores on the board early it will increase the pressure on Newton and his offense to keep pace. The New Orleans front seven will have opportunities to make plays in the Carolina backfield, and if the Saints secondary is able to hold up against an inconsistent Panthers receiving corps this primetime match up could get out of hand by halftime.