Tomorrow Carolina will begin its assault in the NFC south against the New Orleans Saints. Last week it was a rivalry between Olsen, Rivera, and the Bears. This week we get to see how Jeremy Shockey and John Kasay do wearing opposite jerseys against each other. It should be an exciting game and possibly one of the best of this season. The Panthers are looking to break back into the win category coming off of a tough loss in Chicago and the Saints are rolling on a 3 game winning streak. Both teams have gone down throwing to the Green Bay Packers and tomorrow will be another knock down, drag ‘em out gunslingathon between two of the best offenses in the game. Actually, the Saints are ranked # 2 and the Panthers are ranked #3. It’s safe to say that this one shouldn’t disappoint fans from either side.
As defenses, both teams are competitive with the Panthers ranked 14th and the Saints 15th in the league allowing only 24 or 25 points per game. However, the most glaring difference between the two is the run defense. The Panthers are currently 31st and the Saints are 9th so far in the league standings. Since both offenses have been extremely effective this season, the thing to watch will be how well each team can stop the run. For this reason I will discuss what the Panthers will need to do to win tomorrow and not compare menial differences in stat numbers.
A few things that will work in favor of the Panthers tomorrow will obviously be the home advantage, Cam’s success in the air and the fact that the Saints are division rivals. In even bad years teams have a tendency to do things that they can’t seem to do on a consistent basis to either win or come close within their divisions. In last year’s 1st meeting, the Panthers lost 16-14 at the then named Superdome with Jimmy Clausen as quarterback. Not bad considering Carolina only won 2 games in the whole of last season. This year they have one of the best passers in the league with Cam Newton and a drive to be more than just a team on the rebound. My guess is if the Panthers hope to win against an obvious contender for the Super Bowl this year, now is the time to do it. They have the tools to sneak a win and with support from the home fans, we may see a few players make the big plays where Carolina has fallen short in each of their three losses this season.
For Carolina to win big by more than an TD or field goal tomorrow would be a tall order to make. What they can do is keep the game close enough to make a game-winning play at the end. The first step is to focus on pounding the run game and don’t abandon it at all costs. John Fox’s run first offense in last year’s game was more like a run only offense and let the defense keep the game competitive. It nearly worked. This year that game plan will definitely not work. With Carolina’s problems on defense in punt and kick off returns and the run defense in general, they can’t afford to take too many chances with the run. They do have the ability to make it something that the Saints have to work hard to stop. That means Chud will have to pull out every running play until they find something that keeps the Saints D on their toes.
The key is to make the play action unpredictable and a serious threat. Without this working, I don’t see Cam being able to find Smith open down field often enough to pick up a 50+ yard play. Even more, without the big plays down field, it will reduce the amount of the field the Saints have to defend and thus taking the quick, big yards play out of the equation. The Panthers can’t compete unless they can score TD’s outside of the red zone. Their red zone production this season is starting to be a red flag for defenses that if they can hold Carolina to a field goal, they will be able to halt Cam’s effectiveness on offense. If Cam throws 40 or more passes tomorrow, that my happen.
Defensively Carolina has some obvious people to stop. The triple-threat run game powered by Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles. These guys in rotation each have the potential to break out a big run. As the run D is Carolina’s biggest problem, I wouldn’t be surprised if it acted like a Gatling gun blasting through every hole that is given to them until they run out of steam or running room. Since Carolina’s pass defense is at full capacity with Chris Gamble returning this week, the game plan will be to send pressure from the DEs and make Drew Brees make an off-balance pass. As difficult a task as that might be, there is no other real option.
The last key will be special teams. I don’t know why kicking the ball to Devon Hestor last week was part of the game plan, but hopefully they got it out of their system. This week, keeping the ball out of Daren Sproles’ hands will be just as crucial. Not only that, but making tackles on the defensive side of the ball. If the Panthers don’t hold returns to the 20 and 30 yard line, you can pretty much bet that the Saints will capitalize with a score.
As a personnel request, playing Keoloha Pilares on some returns will be nothing but a good thing. In fact, him taking a few passing routes when there isn’t pressure to make a third down may pay off more than by not giving him a chance. Legadu Naanee should only be in the game in the middle of the field and only on 1st and 2nd downs. If he is targeted in a must have play, don’t expect anything special. Darius Butler made a good showing against the Bears last week and I would personally like to see him get some opportunities this week. His size and quickness can help limit Brees’ options with Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore down field. Although, TE Jimmy Graham will be heavily targeted in tomorrow’s game. It may not be a bad idea to rotate Charles Godfrey, Captain Munnerlynn, and Darius Butler around to see who gives the Panthers a better shot at shutting him down at safety or nickel.
If this seems like a long article it’s because there are many things to think about Sunday in Charlotte. In fact, there is a lot more that I could comment on here, but I will spare you for the moment. Look for Schockey to make some big plays in the 1st and 3rd quarters tomorrow as well as Steve Smith continuing his rampage in the receiving world. They can try to hold him, but Smith will get open when they need him. In the games against Green Bay and Chicago I predicted the Panthers would force a turnover in opponent territory and they did. Unfortunately, I do not see that happening tomorrow. The best they can hope for is a few 3 and outs, which is more than possible. Look for the Panthers to strike hard in the first half because the second half will be a lot tougher to score, as per the last few games. It will be close and I expect we’ll see some improvements on the special teams this week, but I’m not sure they can pull this one out the way New Orleans is playing. I hopeful they can prove me wrong and begin their ascent in the NFC south rankings.