New Orleans Saints outside linebacker A.J. Klein (53) sacks Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) in the second half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

Defending Cam Newton is a balancing act.

You want to keep him in the pocket, but you don’t want to let him just sit back there and pick his spots. So you have to find a way to get after him without taking the kind of risks that might allow him to flee the pocket and either extend the play or tuck it and run.

“It’s a hard balance, especially against a mobile quarterback,” defensive tackle Tyeler Davison said. “Against guys like that we have to shift the balance more towards crush-rushing and not letting him escape instead of trying to take more risky speed moves and stuff and hitting the edge and looping around.”

Keeping Newton confined was one of the biggest keys to New Orleans’ game plan during its 31-21 win over the Panthers. The Saints didn’t have to worry about him as much when they played during Week 3, because back then Newton was battling injuries and was trying to avoid hits.

That wasn’t the case Sunday. Newton had shown he was back to the peak of his powers in previous games and entered the contest averaging 5.6 yards per carry, which ranked second in the NFL behind the Saints’ Alvin Kamara. The Saints knew that if Newton could extend plays — especially against a secondary that was without starting cornerback Marshon Lattimore and free safety Marcus Williams — it could spell trouble.

So, the Saints entered the game with the idea that it would build a wall and try to bully its way to Newton, instead of trying to beat offensive linemen around the edges. This sometimes meant giving him ample time to sit in the pocket and go through his reads, which was a better alternative than seeing him tuck the ball and take off for a long run.

To achieve this, New Orleans often had its inside guys try to get a push, build a wall in the middle of the line, try to collapse the pocket and do more bull-rushing than what is typical. What New Orleans didn’t want is for Newton to be able to step up and escape through the gaps between the guards and center. If Newton was going to be able to run, the Saints wanted to force him to go the long way to the edges, where all 11 defensive players could run to him.

New Orleans safety Kenny Vaccaro sacked Newton on one of those plays. Linebacker A.J. Klein blitzed up the middle for the Saints' other sack.

The mentality still is an attacking one. It’s just a different approach than the team might take against, say, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan on Thursday night.

“It’s just a style of rush. It’s not necessarily less aggressive,” defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins said. “At any time if he steps up, I can get off a block and make a play. The goal is basically to not allow him to step up and get out.”

New Orleans was successful with this approach on Sunday. Newton got loose for a 32-yard run in the fourth quarter that allowed him to finish with 51 yards on six carries. Other than that, the only time Newton really had any success running the ball was when he slipped outside of the left side of the pocket for what would have been a first down, but it came back on a holding penalty. Otherwise, there wasn’t much else about his rushing performance to highlight. The Saints kept him contained.

“It wasn’t as if the game plan didn’t dictate me trying to run,” Newton said. “But nevertheless, we still have to be better, whether it’s me running, throwing, catching, stopping them. The three phases of football didn’t come together today.”

Forcing Newton to go to the air was the right call, even with a banged-up secondary defending his receivers. Ken Crawley and P.J. Williams proved to be a formidable cornerback duo, and Vonn Bell did well at free safety. Crawley had a few pass breakups, including one on a deep pass to Damiere Byrd in the fourth quarter that saved a touchdown.

Carolina's big passing moments came mostly because of New Orleans’ failures. Cornerbacks Sterling Moore and Crawley got mixed up trying to cover Carolina’s receivers out of a stack formation and allowed Kaelin Clay to run free for a 13-yard gain on a third down in the first quarter, and the Saints allowed Christian McCaffrey to run free for a big gain on a screen later in the game. A 28-yard pass-interference penalty on P.J. Williams also set up a Panthers’ field goal.

Newton finished 17-of-27 passing for 183 yards with a pair of touchdowns. Overall, it was a successful defensive performance, and the secondary was pleased with how it held up. And it believes there’s an upside to getting different players more snaps.

“When you’re getting reps you’re definitely getting confidence,” P.J. Williams said. “It’s little things you learn, little things you see with watching film that get you more confident.”

Here’s the encouraging thing about the game: The Saints dropped one of the NFC’s powers, and there are a lot of things you could point to that they didn’t do well.

Drew Brees tried his hardest to throw multiple interceptions and was lucky to get away without one. Josh Hill fumbled a reception that could have allowed New Orleans to take a bigger lead before halftime and truly force Carolina into being one-dimensional earlier in the game. There were the coverage breaks and some missed opportunities on third down. Klein dropped an interception. Wil Lutz missed a field goal.

But none of that mattered. Even with two defensive starters missing, the Saints were the better team. They had more talent, executed when it mattered and came back with a strong statement against what was supposed to be one of the better teams in the conference.

This isn’t some team moonlighting as a contender. The Saints are the real deal. It should never have been doubted, even after a tough loss to the Rams last week.

Follow Nick Underhill on Twitter, @nick_underhill.​