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Interview with the Enemy: Third downs and red zone plays will decide the Saints vs. Panthers

Our fellow rival Walker Clement of Cat Scratch Reader joins us to preview our NFC South Sunday showdown.

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

As we finish out the bye week, we have football again this weekend and, accordingly, another week of our Interview with the Enemy series. This week, Walker Clement of Cat Scratch Reader answers 5 quick questions before our Week 7 NFC South showdown: the battle of the former quarterback duo, Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints vs. Teddy Bridgewater and the Carolina Panthers.

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Chicago’s defense is No. 1 overall in the red zone and No. 2 on third downs. Conversely, New Orleans ranks dead last in the red zone and No. 26 on third downs, with 17 of opponents’ 20 drives inside the 20 resulting in TDs. How much of the 3-of-13 third down conversion rate in Sunday’s 23-16 loss to Chicago can be attributed to Curtis Samuel’s absence? Given that third down defense is New Orleans biggest weakness, who will be more critical to contain in the Panthers offense? Robby Anderson or Curtis Samuel?

The vast majority of the Panthers failures on third down against the Bears are attributable to Chicago’s front seven and the pressure they were able to generate. It’s honestly hard to tell what impact Samuel’s absence fully had because he’s used differently every week. The team ping pongs between believing he is a wide receiver and wanting his athleticism to replace Christian McCaffrey’s gadgetry.

Third downs and red zone offense, the do or die plays, have been the Panthers Achilles all season, so this projects as a strong weakness-to-weakness match up against the Saints. Regardless, Anderson has to be the guy the Saints defense keys on. You won’t see many third downs if they are focused on anybody else.

Does Sunday’s loss affect Christian McCaffrey’s return trajectory to potentially come back for a critical divisional matchup? Or, is the run attack mostly irrelevant, and is Carolina’s best game plan to just exploit the Saints weak secondary and win in the air?

I don’t know if the Panthers are looking at this as a full competitive season yet, or as an evaluation year for new head coach Matt Rhule. Either way, I assume Rhule would take the long approach with looking at McCaffrey’s health, and only bring him back if he is truly ready.

As for the game plan, it hasn’t changed much in his absence. The offense runs more or less through the running back position and Mike Davis, Reggie Bonnafon (now also on IR), and Trenton Cannon have all proved capable of making plays when needed.

Finish this sentence: The Saints will win this game unless _________________.

The Panthers score touchdowns in the red zone.

That sounds trite, but the Panthers have scored touchdowns on only 11 of 23, or 47.8%, of their red zone trips. It has been the difference in two of their three losses and is the most consistent flaw these new Panthers have exhibited. If we were handing out team superlatives already then the Panthers would be “Most Likely To Leave Points On The Field.”

If you were Sean Payton, how would you game plan to attack the Panthers defense?

A heavy dose of running plays, and short and intermediate passes. The Panthers are banged up everywhere, but their patchwork secondary seems to be holding up just fine. Their defensive line is hurting, however.

Carolina’s other big weakness is Tahir Whitehead, the linebacker they signed to line up in the middle linebacker spot that Luke Kuechly retired from. We do not use the word replace. His poor tackling might be excusable if he weren’t also a liability in pass coverage or vice-versa, but, well. . . you get the picture. Isolate Alvin Kamara one-on-one against him and Brees will be able to inflate his passing stats like it’s 2017 all over again.

What is your prediction for the game? Who wins? Final score?

I’m going to start by begging everybody reading this to not put money on this game. Gambling on sports is all well and good, but the Panthers are just plain damn weird this year. The firmest advice I can give is bet the over so long as the line is around 50-60 points.

In that spirit, I’m going with a Saints win. 35-33.

But remember kids, the 2020 Panthers are molten chaos. You’re better off betting on Tom Brady’s eventual collapse into an impression of the Nathan Peterman Experience.

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Thank you, Walker, for taking the time to answer our questions – Who Dat. Saints fans, make sure you check out Walker and the work his guys are doing over at Cat Scratch Reader. You can follow Cat Scratch Reader on Twitter @CatScratchReadr and of course you can follow me @MaddyHudak_94.