The New Orleans Saints host the Carolina Panthers this afternoon in a battle between the top two teams in the NFC South. The 8-2 Saints hold a three game lead over the 5-5 Panthers and have a chance to all but lock up the division with a win. One familiar face that will be missing in this unpredictable rivalry is Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, who has been out of action since Week 2. Without Newton, the Panthers have ranked 18th in total offense and have averaged 22.8 points per game. They face a New Orleans defense that is sixth in total yardage and surrenders just under 20 points per contest. Let's have a look at some of the key matchups on this side of the ball for this key divisional battle.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. PANTHERS PASS OFFENSE
The Saints come into this game with the league's 12th ranked pass defense. Opposing teams have averaged 60% completion percentage and 233 yards per game through the air against them. New Orleans has heavily pressured most of the quarterbacks that they've faced all season. The Saints have 27 sacks on the year, but have consistently rushed throws and harrassed the enemy signal caller into hurried passes. Defensive end Cameron Jordan leads the team with 9.5 sacks and an incredible 34 pressures while having another All-Pro season. He is complimented perfectly by Marcus Davenport and Trey Hendrickson, who have combined for six takedowns and several pressures. The Saints' defensive tackles have also collapsed opposing pass pockets consistently.
The pressure up front has allowed the New Orleans secondary to be much more aggressive in their coverage packages. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore will miss his second straight game with a hamstring injury, but the defense did an outstanding job in coverage on star receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans of Tampa Bay last Sunday. Cornerback Eli Apple is having a season worthy of Pro Bowl consideration and has stepped up in Lattimore's absence to shadow the opponent's top receiver. Free safety Marcus Williams has 4 interceptions to lead the team and has shown great anticipation and instincts while having the best year of his career. Vonn Bell, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, and P.J. Williams have all had good seasons in coverage as well, giving the Saints perhaps the deepest secondary they've ever had.
Carolina has the ninth most pass attempts in the league but is just 22nd in passing yardage at 220 yards per outing. Quarterback Kyle Allen has started in place of Newton over the last eight games, completing 61% of his passes for 1,923 yards with 10 touchdowns. Allen won his first four starts but has been under great duress over the last month. Panthers quarterbacks have been sacked 34 times this season, including 18 in the last four games. The pressure has forced Allen into bad throws. He's thrown 9 interceptions in the last four contests and only 3 touchdown passes.
Second year wideout D.J. Moore is Carolina's leading receiver, catching 62 passes for 779 yards but just one score. Veteran tight end Greg Olsen is still an effective target in his 13th season, and has 40 receptions for 486 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Curtis Samuel is dynamic in the open field and leads the Panthers with 4 receiving touchdowns, but has only caught 38 of his 75 targets. The primary weapon in this offense is running back Christian McCaffrey, one of the most versatile offensive players in the NFL, who is second on the team with 59 catches for 517 yards and 3 scores.
Matchup to Watch:
Eli Apple/P.J. Williams vs. D.J. Moore/Curtis Samuel
Williams and Apple, along with Gardner-Johnson, must be up to the task of keeping Moore and Samuel from making big plays without Lattimore in the lineup. On paper the New Orleans secondary looks to have the advantage even without their star cover corner. But Williams is not consistently strong on the outside and both Moore and Samuel are very good in the open field.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. PANTHERS RUN OFFENSE
New Orleans owns the NFL's third best run defense, surrendering just 85 yards per game. Six of their last seven opponents have failed to break the century mark on the ground, and they have not allowed a 100-Yd rusher in 36 games. Saints defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins, Malcom Brown, and David Onyemata have been terrific at the point of attack. They've stood up blockers and get effective penetration into the backfield to blow plays up in their infancy. The ability of the defensive line to control the line of scrimmage has allowed the team's linebackers and defensive backs to swarm to the ball carrier. The charge is led by Demario Davis, whose 69 tackles is a team high.
Christian McCaffrey has rushed for an NFL-best 1,059 yards and 11 touchdowns so far for the tenth ranked Carolina run game. He is the centerpiece of this Panthers offense which has been limited, especially in recent weeks. That sets up a monumental match up between the star back and New Orleans stud Demario Davis, who has been the most underrated defender in the NFL and one of the few linebackers that can keep pace with McCaffrey in the open field.
The Saints look like they can dominate this game up front defensively against a Panthers offensive line that has looked worse by the week. Ability to do so will force mistakes from Kyle Allen, evidenced by Carolina's 10 turnovers in the last four games. McCaffrey will be difficult to contain, but the New Orleans defense can eliminate his rushing threat by clogging his cutback lanes and getting fast penetration. That will increase the pressure on Allen to make plays through the air, and could lead to disaster if the New Orleans secondary continues to it's high level of play.
This is the 50th meeting between the Saints and Panthers, including postseason, with Carolina holding a 25-24 edge in wins. That includes a 13-12 advantage over the Saints when the game is played in New Orleans. The Panthers have lost 3 of their last 4 games since their bye week though and look overmatched against their rivals in this one. New Orleans has won seven of their last eight, with the lone loss being a shocking home loss to Atlanta. The Saints were overwhelmingly favorites in that one too but were beaten soundly on both sides of the ball. Don't expect a repeat of that performance here. New Orleans looks to keep pace with the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, and Green Bay Packers in the race for the NFC's top playoff spot. A win over Carolina will also all but clinche the NFC South. Look for the Saints to do just that in resounding manner against one of their most intense rivals.
What is the biggest match up for the Saints defense against the Panthers offense?
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Saints defensive line vs. Panthers offensive line
Demario Davis vs. Christian McCaffrey
Eli Apple/P.J. Williams vs. D.J. Moore/Curtis Samuel
Vonn Bell vs. Greg Olsen