New Orleans head coach Sean Payton implied on his conference call with reporters this week that the Saints’ Week 3 victory against the Carolina Panthers set the tone for the success his team has seen since.
Statistically, he’s correct. New Orleans entered that game at 0-2 and ranked near the bottom of the league in defense. Despite adding future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson to their roster, they couldn’t get their run game moving.
And the Panthers, who began the year 2-0, looked to make it an easy outing in Charlotte that day.
But after the Saints rolled over Carolina 34-13, they began an eight-game winning streak that vaulted them to the second-most productive offensive in the NFL.
Sunday, the teams meet again in New Orleans and each has an 8-3 record. The game will be a dramatic step in deciding the ultimate champion of the NFC South.
New Orleans looked wobbly against Washington two weeks ago, barely squeaking by with a 34-31 overtime victory, and lost to the Rams last week, 26-20.
The Saints are dangerous, but as the last two games showed, they’re vulnerable in spots.
How can Carolina capitalize?
▪ Use Cam Newton’s legs
The Saints had no trouble containing and hassling Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in Week 3. Newton, whose running was limited by coaches’ desire to protect his body from the brutal hits he takes as a runner as his surgically repaired shoulder continued to rehabilitate, mostly stayed in the pocket and was sacked four times and hurried five.
But the next week at New England, Carolina began to increase Newton’s designed runs and flexibility to make the call to keep the ball, which will factor in to holding the Saints front accountable this Sunday.
▪ No giveaways
Newton was intercepted three times in Week 3. And lately he has been working through a sore thumb that affected the way his passes sailed against the New York Jets in Week 12.
Newton must protect the ball against New Orleans, which has 11 interceptions this season.
▪ Get a big game from Devin Funchess
Since Carolina traded No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo just before the NFL trade deadline, receiver Devin Funchess has seen his role expand.
Before the trade, Funchess averaged 44.6 receiving yards per game. In the three games since, Funchess has averaged 95.3 yards.
He will try to exploit a Saints secondary that might be missing starting cornerback Marshon Lattimore on Sunday.
According to reports from New Orleans, Lattimore has missed the past two days of practice with an ankle injury.
Funchess was also working through a toe injury early in the week but participated fully in practice by Thursday.
▪ Limit explosive plays
This is perhaps the highest area of focus against New Orleans, which has explosive playmakers all over its offense, including pass-catching running back Alvin Kamara, running back Mark Ingram and receivers Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr.
Carolina wants to render the Saints one-dimensional by stopping the run. Carolina’s defenders must be gap-accountable and fly to the ball, especially when a running back such as Kamara gets carries.
Kamara ranks third in the NFL in broken tackles, so to avoid chunk gains the Panthers’ linebackers must keep the slippery back in front of them, and send the house to the ball to clog Kamara’s cutback lanes.
▪ Eliminate mental mistakes
The mental errors that made kept the Jets close must be eliminated.
Four explosive plays hurt Carolina against New York, and all were avoidable. One involved a pair of missed tackles by safety Kurt Coleman and cornerback Daryl Worley; one was a mistimed play on the ball by safety Mike Adams; a touchdown pass could have been broken up by cornerback James Bradberry, and one was a mistake by Coleman to not push his receiver out of bounds as a play broke down and Coleman kept his eyes on quarterback Josh McCown.
Eye discipline will be especially crucial for Carolina’s defensive backs against Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his pump-fake, which he uses to create the chunk plays that the Panthers are hoping to avoid.
▪ Get to Brees
Brees gets the ball to his receivers very quickly, which makes an effective pass rush difficult against the Saints.
Carolina was only able to sack Brees once in Week 3 (Mario Addison), and pressured him just four times.
Having a “layup” option in Kamara, who often catches passes out of the backfield, makes the job harder as Brees could viably get the ball out even more quickly. To make things even more difficult, New Orleans has one of the league’s better offensive lines.
Without defensive end Charles Johnson, who was suspended for four games Friday for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug use policy, the Panthers’ rotation will feature Addison and Julius Peppers as starters bookending Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei, with ends Wes Horton and rookie undrafted free agent Bryan Cox Jr. rotating in for support.