Saints Offense vs. Panthers Defense
Saints Team Offense
- Total offense: 401.2 yards per game (3rd in NFL)
- Scoring offense: 23.7 points per game (13th)
- Pass offense: 304.5 yards per game (3rd)
- Rush offense: 96.6 yards per game (21st)
Panthers Team Defense
- Total defense: 312.5 yards allowed per game (2nd in NFL)
- Scoring defense: 18.6 points per game (3rd)
- Pass defense: 223.8 yards per game (5th)
- Rush defense: 88.7 yards per game (T-2nd)
The past two games have been abysmal for the Saints offense, particularly for Drew Brees and the passing unit. Brees averaged just 214 yards per game in both of the losses, while failing to throw a touchdown pass for the first time in 45 contests. That streak started immediately after his NFL record streak of 54 straight games ended back in 2012, so that means that in a strand of 100 games, that Thursday night loss in Atlanta was the only game without a touchdown. Quite impressive, if you ask me. Moving on, the pass protection has been awful for most of the year and those issues have been at the forefront of the recent struggles. Brees got killed by J.J. Watt throughout the game last week. It was so bad that Watt was actually caught on camera telling the Saints that they needed a new right tackle, because Brees was getting crushed. The truth hurts, literally (for Brees, anyway).
Carolina’s success against the pass is greatly due to two very important sacks. They are tied for 3rd in the NFL with 33 sacks and they rank 1st with 18 interceptions. Getting pressure on the quarterback and forcing turnovers. It’s that easy, right? Well, not really, but they sure do make it look that way. Defensive tackle Kawann Short leads the team with 6.0 sacks, while defensive end Kony Ealy follows closely behind with 5.0. Thomas Davis, who’s also just a single tackle behind team leader Luke Kuechly for the team lead, has pitched in for 4.0 sacks of his own. Davis and Kuechly both also have three interceptions, though strong safety Kurt Coleman leads the team with five. Josh Norman, a rising star at cornerback, has picked off four of his own, while leading the team with 15 passes defended.
The Saints will most likely be without one of Brees’ top receiving targets, as Willie Snead is doubtful to play with a calf injury. The protection could also take a hit if Terron Armstead is unable to suit up due to a knee injury. He’s questionable to play and will likely test it out pre-game and see how he feels. Carolina will be without Mario Addison and Charles Tillman, who have both been solid contributors throughout the season. Addison has 4.0 sacks, while Tillman has an interception and six passes defended. The Saints will have to do their best to keep Brees upright, because everyone knows that this defense is going to get after him. If he does not have time, he does not have a chance. Plain and simple. I do not expect much from Brandin Cooks today, as he will have Norman draped over him throughout the contest. Ben Watson will face coverage from Kuechly and Davis, who are both very good against the pass from the linebacker positions. Marques Colston very well could lead the team in receiving today, as the Panthers take away Brees’ other top options.
Inconsistency is the best word to describe this rushing attack. There will be large periods of the game where Mark Ingram has no where to go, then for just two or three drives, he all of a sudden has lanes to run through. His totals in recent games have not been terrible, but it seems as if they are mostly coming from just a few drives, which is coming from those random drives. It may appear that the rushing attack is decent, but it is far from that. When it all boils down, New Orleans struggles to run the ball when they want and need to. Ingram has 713 yards rushing and 4.6 yards per carry, but if you watch the games, you notice that he is repeatedly hit in the backfield on so many plays. The ground game looks good at times, but it is simply far too inconsistent to rely on.
Carolina has been a stone wall against the run this season. As you can see from their week to week average, they just do not allow much on the ground. I’ve mentioned them already, but Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have played great this season and lead the way against the run. Kurt Coleman and Roman Harper have also been big contributors against the run, recording 57 and 55 tackles, respectively.
I do not expect much from Ingram and the Saints rushing attack today, especially if Jahri Evans is unable to play. Evans is nursing an ankle injury and is also listed as questionable. If Evans can’t play, Sean Payton may be forced to put Tim Lelito back on the field, who was replaced by rookie first round pick Andrus Peat, who started at guard against the Houston Texans for the first time all year.
Saints Defense vs. Panthers Offense
Saints Team Defense
- Total defense: 418.6 yards allowed per game (31st in NFL)
- Scoring defense: 30.8 points per game (32nd)
- Pass defense: 284.2 yards per game (31st)A
- Rush defense: 134.5 yards per game (30th)
Panthers Team Offense
- Total offense: 348.7 yards per game (17th)
- Scoring offense: 30.2 points per game (3rd)
- Pass offense: 209.8 yards per game (29th)
- Rush offense: 138.9 yards per game (4th)
Though they had been torched in previous few games, the pass defense did not really play that terrible against the Texans a week ago. The defense as a whole played better, giving up only 362 yards of offense, but they held Brian Hoyer to just 205 yards through the air. What was more impressive is that DeAndre Hopkins, one of the league’s top receivers this season, only recorded 5 receptions for 36 yards. Now, where they did struggle was getting to Hoyer with a pass rush, as Cam Jordan was the only player to come up with a sack. Jordan does lead the team with 7.0 sacks, but that just does not cut it as a team. Hau’oli Kikaha is second on the team with 4.0 sacks, but has mostly disappeared since early in the season. As far as coverage goes, Delvin Breaux is one of five players who have just one interception a piece, but leads the team with 13 passes defended. Jairus Byrd was the latest player to come up with in interception, picking off Hoyer last week.
We all know that Cam Newton is one of the biggest threats every single time he drops back to pass, but it is not because of his arm. He has completed just 57.2% of his passes this year, but remains one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the NFL. That is because of the threat of him pulling the ball down and running. He leads all quarterbacks in the league with 427 yards rushing and 7 touchdowns. Many of the touchdowns will come on designed runs when near the goal line, but the yards are a different story. Earlier in his career, Newton ran a lot more designed carries, but that’s not always the case any more. Newton has never suffered a serious injury and Head Coach Ron Rivera wants to keep it that way, so they try to prevent him from getting hit more often than he should. As far as his receiving targets go, look no further than Greg Olsen to find who is Newton’s favorite. Olsen leads the team in all receiving categories with 53 receptions, 788 yards, and 6 touchdowns. Ted Ginn Jr. has performed well when called upon, too, as his 30 receptions, 445 yards, and 4 touchdowns are all second on the team. Watch out for Devin Funchess, who is their rookie receiver from Michigan. I say to watch out for him, but it’s hard to miss him at 6’4 tall and 225 pounds. Funchess is a former tight end who was moved to wide receiver in his junior season in college in 2014. Many believed he would play the role of Kelvin Benjamin, the team’s leading receiver a year ago who is also huge, but it took him a little longer to get acclimated to seeing the NFL field. He seems to be coming more in to his own lately, as Newton is looking for him more and more.
As always, the game plan against Newton is rush him, but keep him contained. That’s much easier said than done, but it’s kind of the only way to beat him. He is not a great pure passer, but any quarterback in the NFL can find and hit an open receiver if he has enough time. The key to bothering most conventional quarterbacks is to get pressure and force bad throws, but with Newton, his first instinct is not to try and get rid of the ball. His first instinct is to find an open space and run, therefore the need for containment. Don’t get me wrong, he will absolutely rush some throws and chunk a ball up off of his back foot, but when the protection breaks down, Dennis Allen’s unit must get him on the ground and not allow him to slip away and kill the Saints with his legs.
Also ranked in the 30s, the run defense has been poor throughout the season, as well. Tackling has always seemed to be an issue in the Sean Payton era, but the constant missed tackles had kind of disappeared for the most part in 2013 and 2014. The defense was awful a year ago, but it was more about misplacement and bad play calling, than poor tackling. That issue has been a factor this year, though, as we have watched ball carriers slip out of defenders’ arms and gain extra yardage all season. The silver lining has been the play of rookie Stephone Anthony and Kenny Vaccaro. Anthony leads the team with 82 tackles and has flashed brilliance in his first year in the NFL. It is hard not to be thrilled for his future. As for Vaccaro, he has bounced back nicely from a very poor sophomore campaign a year ago and has recorded 77 tackles for second most on the team. I mentioned that missed tackles were not a team-wide problem a year ago, but for him, they certainly were. He’s gotten back to what we saw his rookie season, playing fast and aggressive and taking ball carriers down in the open field.
Very quietly, Jonathan Stewart is 3rd in the NFL in rushing with 832 yards rushing. It is his first year as a Panther without fellow backfield mate DeAngelo Williams and he has not disappointed in the full time role. He is not much of a threat out of the back field, having just 12 receptions all year, but he is great in pass protection, making him a solid three down back.
It is pretty simple, Newton and Stewart make up the entire rushing offense that ranks 4th in the league. In today’s NFL, you see a lot more teams that rank high in rushing that have at least one or two running backs behind their starter that are big contributors, but that is not the case with this team. Mike Tolbert may get a short yardage carry here and there, but if Carolina is running the ball, it will be in Newton or Stewart’s hands. The Saints have a tough task in slowing these two down, because they are mostly unstoppable and that’s the reason they are 11-0.
I joked on Twitter after last week’s game that we all know the Saints are going to come out and win this game. While it was mostly just that, a joke, there was some merit to what I said. Yes, on paper, New Orleans is completely over-matched and this one may not even be close, but it comes down to the one thing I always mention about Sean Payton teams. They do not quit. There is a reason that 7-9 is the worst season Payton has ever had and that is it. His team does not give up on the season, even when (in times like this), playoffs are out of the window. Add in the fact that this is a divisional game and a rival like the Panthers are undefeated and you have all of the motivation that a team needs to fight for an unexpected upset. With that being said, I am not going to pick the Saints to win based on the premise of heart over everything else, but I will not be surprised one bit if they spoil Carolina’s perfect season.
Prediction: Panthers-31, Saints-13
Enjoy the game, folks! As always, Who Dat?!
Follow David Billiot Jr on Twitter @DCBilliotJr