The New Orleans Saints return home this Sunday to play their third divisional game in as many weeks. They rebounded from a November 10th loss against Atlanta by routing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the road last Sunday. The 8-2 Saints now await the 5-5 Carolina Panthers in a showdown of the top two teams in the NFC South. The New Orleans offense isn't quite as explosive as we've seen in years past behind Drew Brees and Sean Payton but have averaged nearly 24 points per game, have scored over 30 points in 3 of their last 4 games, and are 14th in total offense. They line up against an always physical Carolina defense that has been uncharacteristically shaky this season. The Panthers have allowed an average of nearly 23 points per contest and rank 19th in total yardage, although they are fourth in the league with 19 forced turnovers. Let's see how the Saints offense matches up with a Carolina defense that has their backs against the wall for a possible playoff berth.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. PANTHERS PASS DEFENSE
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees may not have the deep arm he once did but still has the ability to consistently carve defenses apart. The 40-Yr old Hall of Famer has completed over 75% of his passes while averaging 314 yards in his four full games played with 8 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. The Saints passing game ranks 9th in the league, averaging 256.5 yards per game, thanks in large part to the exploits of Michael Thomas. The fourth year receiver is on a record-setting pace for receptions and currently leads the NFL with 94 catches for 1,141 yards. He has hauled in an eye-popping 82% of his targets and is nearly impossible to contain because of his precise route running. Thomas has at least 8 receptions and 89 yards in every game but one this season and has eclipsed the 100-Yd barrier six times.
For as productive as Thomas has been, the opposite is true of the rest of the Saints wide receivers. Ted Ginn Jr. has 40 targets, converting them into 22 catches for 310 yards and 2 touchdowns. The rest of the New Orleans wide receivers have just a combined 10 receptions for 107 yards and 1 score. The team has gotten decent production from it's tight ends though, led by 23 catches for 275 yards and 3 touchdowns from Jared Cook. Running back Alvin Kamara is the team's second leading receiver despite missing nearly three games with an ankle injury. Kamara has 51 receptions for 373 yards and is utilized all over the Saints' offensive formation to create mismatches.
The New Orleans offensive line bounced back from a bad performance against the Falcons with an exemplary game against the Buccaneers. Saints quarterbacks have been sacked 19 times this season, with 11 of those coming in two games against Dallas and Atlanta. Saints tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead have silenced opposing pass rushers on the outside, while the interior line has maintained a clean pass pocket for both Brees and Teddy Bridgewater.
The Panthers pass defense has given up around 234 yards per game, ranking 14th, but have intercepted 12 passes, third best in the league. Carolina has sacked opposing quarterbacks an NFL-high 39 times, relying on heavy pressure from their defensive front to create havoc. Veteran end Mario Addison leads the team with 8 sacks but edge rushers Bruce Irvin and rookie Brian Burns have combined for 8 of their own. The Panthers also have a formidable trio inside that provide disruption. Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, and Vernon Butler have a combined 12 sacks and 27 pressures.
The Carolina secondary has proven to be an athletic and playmaking unit that will take gambles, but with the pressure generated up front often pays dividends. Cornerbacks Donte Jackson and James Bradberry are tied for the team lead with 3 interceptions each and have a combined 16 passes defensed. Eric Reid has nice range at one safety spot but struggles at times in man coverage, while Tre Boston has also shown some vulnerability in coverage duties on the back end.
Matchup to Watch:
Saints offensive line vs. Panthers defensive line
Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk have swallowed up the majority of outside rushers all season long. They will be tested again against the Panthers trio of Addison, Burns, and Irvin. The Saints tandem of tackles have been up to the task of taking on pass rushes 1-on-1, which would allow the interior of the New Orleans line to focus on a formidable Carolina inside rush. The Panthers defensive has not been nearly as effective against the run as they have the pass in 2019, showing vulnerability over the last month in particular. Drew Brees must be given time to progress through his reads, especially with Michael Thomas facing a challenge against Donte Jackson in the secondary. The offensive line must establish control of the point of attack for the New Orleans ground game to be effective as well, allowing the team to maintain a balanced attack against the physical Panthers defense.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE vs. PANTHERS RUN DEFENSE
Saints running back Alvin Kamara looks fully recovered from ankle and knee injuries that sidelined him for two games last month. He leads the team in rushing with 472 yards and had 75 on the ground with just 13 carries against the Buccaneers. Latavius Murray has added 398 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns, including two 100-Yd outings when Kamara was out of the lineup. The New Orleans offensive line has controlled the line of scrimmage and point of attack in most of their games this season. Nick Easton did a spectacular job filling in for the injured Andrus Peat at left guard against Tampa Bay, a performance that is expected to continue with Peat expected to be sidelined several more games. Rookie center Erik McCoy has been a powerful presence inside, while guard Larry Warford and Ramczyk have steamrolled defenders along the right side.
Carolina ranks a lowly 27th at defending the run. They've allowed over 128 yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry while surrendering a league-worst 18 rushing touchdowns. The Panthers defensive line has not controlled the line of scrimmage, enabling blockers to get to their defenders at the second level for bigger gains downfield. Linebacker Shaq Thompson is an athletic defender and second on the team in tackles but is on the smaller side and doesn't hold up well against bigger blockers. Luke Kuechly is still the centerpiece of the Panthers defense. The 8th year linebacker leads his team with 90 tackles, adding 2 interceptions and 7 passes defensed.
Matchup to Watch:
Alvin Kamara/Latavius Murray vs. Luke Kuechly/Shaq Thompson
Kuechly is still one of the most respected defenders in the league but is no longer quite the sideline to sideline playmaker he once was. The athletic and versatile Kamara will put that to the test here. Kamara has been used sparingly as a runner in four career games against the Panthers but has scored 5 touchdowns. The Saints use their backs as vital weapons in the passing game as well, which will give both Kamara and Murray open field opportunities against the Carolina linebackers.
Former Saints running back Mark Ingram had some productive games against the Panthers throughout his career in New Orleans, which suggests that the physical running style of Murray could be effective in this game. The Saints have often been productive through the air against the Panthers but the difference between a win or a loss in this underrated rivalry has often come down to how effective their running backs have been against a Carolina team now fighting for their playoff lives.
Which is the biggest key for the Saints offense against the Panthers defense?
This poll is closed
Kamara/Murray vs. Kuechly/Thompson
Ramczyk/Armstead vs. Addison/Burns/Irvin
Warford/McCoy/Easton vs. McCoy/Poe/Butler
Thomas/Ginn vs. Jackson/Bradberry
Jared Cook vs. Eric Reid