When you think of the New Orleans Saints, you think of Drew Brees and passing offense. When you think of the Carolina Panthers, you think of stifling defense...and possibly Cam Newton as well.
While it’s true the Saints’ defense has become sneaky-good, they don’t play as well on the road as they do at home and I’m taking a look more at the Saints’ offense/Panthers’ defense in this matchup. They’re the strengths of both teams, in fact.
Here we are...a day away from the most important football game for the Carolina Panthers in YEARS. If they lose, they can't win the division. If they win, depending on the outcomes of the final game in week 17, they could win the NFC South. However, it all starts Sunday when the Saints come marching in.
The Saints destroyed the Panthers at the Superdome, but that's sort of the same thing as losing at Seattle - those two teams have the best home field advantage in the entire NFL. Drew Brees has an aura about him when he plays at home.
Last week, however, his aura got tarnished - on the road - against a surging St. Louis Rams team. For whatever reason, the Brees doesn't play well against the Rams, and the Rams are hardly a recent NFL powerhouse of a team, but the Panthers have some of the same strengths as the Rams - namely, a formidable defensive line.
Panthers ends Greg "The Krakken" Hardy and Charles Johnson are as good a pair of DEs as you'll find anywhere these days and Hardy is going up against rookie LT Terron Armstead, who is getting his first start as a Saint.
Armstead is that kid from Arkansas-Pine Bluff that was such a fast riser from his athletic NFL Combine stats - 6'5" 306, 4.71 40-yard dash. Similar to Lane Johnson's numbers, but Armstead was drafted a bit lower - 76th overall I think it was - because of that small school question.
That was partially answered last week against the Rams, at least in the short term. The athletic young man isn't prepared to be an NFL starter just yet, but is pressed into service due to injuries.
It certainly won't help him to face one of the NFL's top sack artists who has a lot of tools in his toolbox. Hardy can speed rush, set up and execute the inside rush, and bull rush. It's that bull rush that Armstead is weakest at stopping.
What does all this mean?
It also means the Carolina Panthers have a real good shot at winning this time around, playing at Bank of America Stadium. Only Peyton Manning has a better QBR in home games than does Newton this year as Cam has matured into a QB who takes what's there and rarely throws into tight coverage anymore.
But specifically, how do you slow down the Saints' offense?
Normally, it's pressure, and that's certainly the case here as with anyone. When a QB starts getting hit, they'll get the "happy feet" or start scrambling too early, but Brees' pocket presence should keep him from bailing too early.
I think the solution is to play solid press-man coverage. The Panthers tried this in the Superdome, but were largely unsuccessful. Ron Rivera will make sure the defensive backs learn from their mistakes and should do a much better job because of it and the fact they're playing at home with more confidence this time around.
The Panthers MUST win out to win the division, and a #2 seed lock is way better than a probable 6th seed with a loss to the Saints. They'd still have to win on the road in Atlanta, which isn't easy even in a down year for the Falcons, but first things first.
Keys to Victory by Panthers' D:
1) Since Drew Brees gets rid of the ball quickly, That "A"-gap blitz that Sean McDermott sometimes dials up as the Panthers' Defensive Coordinator needs to be used a bit if Carolina rookies Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short (or the interior rotation of players including Colin Cole and D'Wan Edwards) can't get immediate pressure collapsing the pocket in Brees' face. Collapsing the interior of the pocket is a highly under-rated thing. It means a QB can't step into his throws, he can't step up to avoid the ends being pushed around behind him that can still paw at him, and overall is psychologically negative for any QB to experience.
2) The Saints offense uses a lot of timing very much like that of the Broncos and Patriots. If the receivers can get jammed and/or re-routed at the snap, it throws everything off from that point forward. That's when you'll see Brees missing on passes or dumping off to Darren Sproles, who is dangerous enough in his own right. Otherwise, if Brees throws it to the right spot and ON time, but if the receiver isn't there to catch it....
3) You're not going to fool Drew Brees with "disguised" defense. He's been there, seen that, even got the movie version every week in film study. What you're doing when you "disguise" defenses is you're trying to screw up the blocking scheme (fooling a lineman) so that a defender gets an open rush to Brees. Even Drew Brees isn't fast enough to make a play if a defender is coming at him unblocked and the Panthers do use “overload” blitzes in their scheme.
4) The Saints have too many weapons to focus on any one guy. Darren Sproles. Jimmy Graham. Marques Colston. Rookie WR Kenny Stills has speed to burn. Sure tackling is the way to slow the offense if Brees gets time to throw, and he will have time some plays no matter how well the defense is doing their job. This leads me to my last point:
5) HIT DREW BREES. NO QB likes being hit, period, END OF STORY! If the Panthers can hit him early and often - a few times at least - it plants that seed of doubt...
"Will my rookie left tackle blow his assignment/get fooled?"
"Is the line going to hold or am I going to have to watch first for unblocked bad guys?"
"My wife is really going to hate it if I get my spine ripped out and have it shown to me on national television."
What have you.
Wrapping it up, the defensive backs HAVE to do a better job in press and/or in press-bail coverage. What the Carolina secondary lacks in cover skills, they can make up for in being disruptive on the outside against a timing offense like New Orleans has.
Greg Hardy needs a big day vs. the rookie Armstead to make Brees keep thinking about him rather than his options downfield, and perhaps start looking at his hot receiver as his FIRST option. Carolina does a good job tackling receivers in the open field, generally speaking, and can force New Orleans to get their yardage in bits and pieces instead of the chunks they got in the Superdome match-up.
Collapsing the pocket inside is perhaps the single most effective way of disrupting Brees' pass plays without actually notching up a lot of sacks. It will make him less accurate (he can't get MORE accurate) and should increase the chances of ball-hawking safety Mike Mitchell to get his paws on a ball for a turnover or ten. Well...maybe two.
Lastly, the crowd really needs to get involved with generating noise. I was at the Jets' game last week, and the crowd did a pretty good job raising the roof...so to speak as BoA Stadium is open-air...especially on 3rd downs when the Jets were on offense. They need to take 'er up a couple of notches and really get into the huddle and line of scrimmage.
Sometimes all it takes is for one WR on the outside being unable to hear an audible for a game-changing turnover to occur. One single play could mean the difference in a win or a loss on Sunday. BoA Stadium isn't in on the seemingly continuous contest between fans at CenturyLink in Seattle, Mile High in Denver, or Arrowhead in Kansas City with the decibel meter, but if the fans' hearts and lungs are with the team, they could really help make a difference.
Carolina needs to bring their own "twelfth man."
Carolina 27, New Orleans 24