CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When the New Orleans Saints embarked Sunday on what would be their final drive against the Carolina Panthers, conventional wisdom would have had them turning to slippery running back Darren Sproles for a little extra speed and escapability.
Even the game-winning play, which is called “Slippery Naked” in the Saints’ offensive lexicon, is designed for Sproles.
But when the Saints were closing in on the Panthers’ goal line in the final minute of Sunday’s game in Bank of America Stadium, it was running back Pierre Thomas who got the call and the touchdown in a 30-27 victory.
Thomas, who made a one-handed grab on a screen pass and turned it into a key 18-yard gain earlier in the drive, slipped undetected out of the backfield to snare a 6-yard TD pass from Drew Brees that gave the Saints the lead with 50 seconds to play.
“Actually, that play is designed for Darren, a faster guy,” Thomas said after the defense held off the Panthers in their final last-gasp drive to preserve the Saints’ fourth win in a row. “The defense was probably thinking I wouldn’t get it. They probably thought it would be a fake, so it was a good call at the right time.”
There was a reason for that, Brees said.
Facing a second-and-1 at the Carolina 6, Brees said the Panthers would have known the ball was going to Sproles if he was in the game. So they showed run and got Thomas into the end zone to cap Brees’ 19th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter in five-plus seasons with the team.
“We were trying to sell the run,” said Brees, who completed 32 of 45 passes for 359 yards and two TDs with an interception. “We wanted to slip him out there, hopefully undetected behind the offensive linemen so he can stick his nose out there.
“It looks OK in practice,” he said, “but that’s the way it’s supposed to work, especially in a critical situation.”
The Saints (4-1) were certainly in a critical situation after the upstart Panthers (1-4) scored two second-half touchdowns to take a 27-23 lead for the first time on Cam Newton’s 1-yard TD run in the third period and his 5-yard scoring pass to tight end Greg Olsen — the latter with 12:32 to play.
But the Saints defense came up with two critical stops in the final 7? minutes, forcing a punt that gave the ball back to the offense for the 89-yard game-winning drive and then stopping the Panthers for the final time when they were trying to get in range for a game-tying field goal.
“I think we can walk away from this game saying that this was a total team win,” said Brees, who flipped a 1-yard TD pass to fullback Jed Collins after cornerback Patrick Robinson intercepted Newton on the game’s first play to set up the score. “We knew what type of game it was going to be: an all-day sucker.”
It was when the Panthers, who trailed by double digits three times — 10-0 in the first quarter, 17-6 in the second and 23-13 in the third — kept fighting back behind Newton.
The rookie sensation threw a 54-yard TD to Steve Smith in the first quarter and led his team to a pair of second-half touchdowns after running back DeAngelo Williams ripped off a 69-yard scoring run in the second quarter.
But the Saints got a 1-yard TD run from Mark Ingram and John Kasay kicked field goals of 23, 46 and 37 yards against the team he played 16 seasons for before being released in late July.
Kasay’s third field goal gave the Saints a 23-13 lead before Newton, who connected on 16 of 31 passes for 224 yards with two TDs in leading the Panthers to 381 total yards, cranked up touchdown drives of 80 and 59 yards.
They appeared ready to put their foot on the Saints’ throats when they got one first down and faced a third-and-2 at the Panthers’ 45. But Newton and Smith failed to connect on a deep ball and they had to punt the ball back to the Saints.
That’s when Brees put together a 13-play, 89-yard drive that took 6:16 off the clock.
They converted both of their third-down attempts, with Brees going to tight end Jimmy Graham for a 12-yard completion on third-and-3 from the Saints’ 18 before Ingram powered his way for a 2-yard gain on third-and-1 from the Panthers’ 17.
Two plays later, Brees found Thomas wide open in the right flat, leaving cornerback Chris Gamble and safety Sherrod Martin looking at each other in disbelief.
The screen pass Thomas caught was another huge play. Both Thomas and Brees said a defensive end grabbed Thomas’ left arm, which forced him to reach up only with his right hand. He caught the ball near his head, but turned upfield and weaved his way upfield for valuable yards.
“It was just a basic screen,” said Thomas, who has made that play a staple of the Saints’ offense. “One of the defensive ends grabbed my arm, but I knew I had to get an arm up to catch this. The offensive line did a great job.”
“All in all, I thought it was a very effective drive,” Brees said, “one in which we had all the confidence in the world that we were going to go down and score.”
They took as much time as they could off the clock, then turned it over to the defense to close it out which they did when the Panthers could get no closer than the Saints’ 49 on their final possession.
“The Panthers were doing very well getting touchdowns in the second half,” said middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. “But we made two critical stops and gave the offense the ball, and then that last stop was very important.”