These aren’t the same Panthers that gave the Saints so much trouble last year.
And to be fair, except for Sunday night’s performance against the Packers, this isn’t the same New Orleans Saints team that took Carolina to the wire last season — which, if you ask Panthers coach Ron Rivera, should surprise no one.
“Teams go up and down,” Rivera said. “Probably the only consistency that’s been in this league has been New England and Denver right now, Denver with Peyton Manning and Indianapolis when Peyton was there and New England.”
New Orleans laid all the necessary platitudes on Carolina this week, specifically talking up its staunch defense, but that hasn’t been true in recent weeks.
After ranking second in the NFL in total defense last season, the Panthers are currently allowing an average of 378.5 yards per game. To put that in perspective, the much-maligned Saints defense is allowing an average of 390.4 yards per game. That alone should excite Saints quarterback Drew Brees, but what’s on film makes it look even better.
Carolina likes to operate out of eight-man fronts, and because of a weak secondary, it often uses zone defenses. Another quarterback in Brees’ category, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, was able to pick apart this group for 255 yards on 19-of-22 passing.
The run defense also has faced issues. The Panthers have given up many long runs, including one for 89 yards, and are allowing 135.3 rushing yards per game and 5.2 per carry.
That should be an exciting proposition for Mark Ingram, who carried the load last week with Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas out of action because of injuries and broke loose for 172 yards against the Packers.
If the Saints once again remain balanced and establish the run early, they should have opportunities on the ground and through the air.
If you look back to a year ago, that’s not something many teams would expect to accomplish heading into Carolina.
But as Rivera said, there are not many constants in the NFL.
KNOW YOUR OPPONENT: CAM NEWTON
After being placed in bubble wrap and told to play it safe, Cam Newton decided he had enough and went back to doing the things that make him one of the tantalizing talents in the NFL.
He tucked the ball, lowered his head and took off. It was the only way the Panthers were going to keep pace with the Cincinnati Bengals. So, after running 14 times in the first four games of the season, Newton had 17 carries for 107 yards in the 37-37 tie.
Since then, Newton has continued to do the things he’s known for, which makes Carolina (3-4-1) a scarier opponent than it would have been in, say, Week 2, when the quarterback was still nursing rib and ankle injuries. The Saints will need to work to keep him contained to the pocket and limit his ability to extend plays with his feet. And even if New Orleans gets to him, it might not matter.
Even though Newton has an elongated delivery and holds the ball an average of 2.85 seconds per attempt, the fourth-longest time in the NFL, he’s been sacked 17 times.
While only seven quarterbacks have been sacked more, the number seems low. All but one of those quarterbacks who have been sacked more get rid of the ball quicker than Newton, and four do so in 2.63 seconds or less.
THREE AND OUT
1. INGRAM AGAIN?
Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas are still nursing injuries that could keep them out of action for another week. While handling such a large amount of carries could wear on Mark Ingram, it’s doubtful he’ll complain about having the ball in his hands after wracking up 172 yards on the ground against the Packers.
2. KEEP COOKING
Brandin Cooks finally flashed some of the potential that had observers gushing over him during training camp last week. The rookie wide receiver proved he can get deep by catching a 50-yard bomb from Drew Brees, and earlier in the game ran in a 4-yard touchdown on a reverse. Now he needs to build on the momentum.
3. WHITE OUT
Cornerback Corey White was maligned by both media and fans for his performance against the Detroit Lions two weeks ago. He erased some of the doubt by intercepting a pass and creating another pick for David Hawthorne. Like Cooks, he needs another solid performance to silence the doubters.
OUT: RB Pierre Thomas (rib/shoulder), LB David Hawthorne (hand), FB Austin Johnson (knee)
—This is the second straight game Thomas will miss. ... Hawthorne will miss after picking off his first pass with the Saints in Sunday night’s win against Green Bay. Ramon Humber will probably start in his place. ... Johnson will miss after seven games at fullback and will cede his spot to fullback Erik Lorig, an NFL veteran making his second appearance for the Saints.
QUESTIONABLE: TE Jimmy Graham (shoulder), C Jonathan Goodwin (knee/ankle), LB Kyle Knox (ankle) and RB Khiry Robinson (forearm)
—Graham played hurt the last two weeks and scored a touchdown Sunday night against Green Bay. ... Knox, Robinson and Goodwin missed last game; but, like Graham, they were limited in practice all week.
OUT: T Byron Bell (elbow/knee), CB Bene Benwikere (ankle), WR Philly Brown (concussion), G Amini Silatolu (calf), G Trai Turner (knee), RB Fozzy Whittaker (thigh)
QUESTIONABLE: S Thomas DeCoud (hamstring), DT Kawann Short (ankle)
PROBABLE: T Nate Chandler (thigh), RB DeAngelo Williams (ankle), LB Jason Williams (hip)
RAMON ANTONIO VARGAS: The Saints turned a corner after their bye. It wasn’t enough to avoid a one-point loss in Detroit, but it produced a pummeling of Green Bay four days ago. The recent combination of takeaways and sacks on defense is the perfect complement to the NFL’s No. 2 passing attack, and it will be enough for the Saints to win their first game on the road this season.
Saints 27, Panthers 21
NICK UNDERHILL: I’ve picked the Saints to win on the road every week this season and noted that the streak has to end at some point. Maybe I’m the jinx. I don’t know. But this team played good football each of the past two weeks, and this thing has to end at some point, right? If the Saints make it happen, they’ll be in good shape in the division race heading into a tough three-game homestretch.
Saints 31, Panthers 24
SCOTT RABALAIS: Two key numbers are in play in this game: 7 and 5.2. Seven is the number of consecutive road losses by the Saints; 5.2 is the yards per rushing attempt the Panthers are allowing, worst in the NFL. History says pick the home team on a short week. But if the Saints stay committed to the run they can win, with or without Thomas and Robinson.
Saints 20, Panthers 17