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Ups and downs from Saints vs. Panthers

Which players improved and where is the team still struggling.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints beat the Carolina Panthers 28-6 on Sunday. After their win, New Orleans became tied with the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers for first place in the NFC South.

Up: Pass rush

The Saints' pass rush started the season strong but has struggled to consistently get to the quarterback since. The defense’s four sacks on Sunday was only the third time since week 3 that they recorded 3+ sacks in a game.

Dennis Allen hasn't called many blitz plays this season, usually relying on his players to win in four-man rush situations. That is not entirely a bad thing if your players are winning in the trenches, but for the Saints, that is not the case. We saw linebackers, safeties, and corners chasing down Panthers quarterback Bryce Young on Sunday, and to no surprise, the team had their most sacks since week four. The defense still let Young slip out of their grasp more than desired, allowing Young to rush for 40 yards on the day, but there was improvement in both player execution and playcalling.

Up: Jimmy Graham

Jimmy Graham has been a healthy scratch for 5/13 games this season, and even when he's appeared in games, he has not been utilized enough. The veteran tight end has 4 catches this season, three of them going for touchdowns. Quarterback Derek Carr and the Saints’ offense have struggled throughout the season to score in the redzone and the choice of personnel contributes to this. We’ve seen multiple instances where Carr would throw first-read fades to his six-foot wide receivers instead of tight ends such as Graham and Juwan Johnson. Hopefully Graham’s two big catches are an indication that he will see the field more in the redzone.

Down: Blake Grupe

Kicker Blake Grupe has been a question mark through the course of the season and Sunday represented that perfectly. Grupe only attempted one field goal against the Panthers. Grupe’s lone attempt was a 29-yard miss. Later in the game, the Saints opted to punt instead of attempting a 56-yard field goal. This has happened multiple times through the season where the Saints would pass on a chance at points and punt the ball instead. This shows a lack of confidence in your kicker. And for a team that has struggled to score touchdowns all season, having a kicker you don't believe can make field goals beyond 50 yards in a dome is not ideal.

Down: Culture

For a second week in a row, the Superdome didn't feel like it should. The booing from the fans returned, there were many empty seats, and the roar of the crowd was just a fraction of what it once was. The lack of fan engagement isn't only a product of losing, it's a product of bad and boring football. The Saints are tied for first in the NFC South and yet fans aren’t excited. The expectations versus the reality for a team that brought in a big-name free-agent quarterback with the easiest schedule in the entire league is upsetting, to say the least. The Saints are underachieving with a roster full of superstars.

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