CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The New Orleans Saints found themselves in an unfamiliar position Sunday, trying to right the ship against the defending division champions with somebody other than the best player in franchise history leading them.
For the first time in a decade, quarterback Drew Brees was forced to miss a game because of an injury — a bruised rotator cuff forcing journeyman backup Luke McCown into the driver’s seat for a team desperate to avoid a disastrous start and begin making up ground in the NFC South.
McCown gave the Saints exactly what they needed.
But the New Orleans defense failed to hold up its end of the bargain. After a pair of encouraging performances in the first two games, the defense was shredded by Cam Newton, Greg Olsen and a ragtag group of Carolina Panthers receivers in a 27-22 loss that dropped New Orleans to 0-3 for the first time since 2012.
“We’re close, but we’re not winning them, and nobody cares about, nobody wants a moral victory,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “Tomorrow, they’re not going to talk about, ‘They’re so close.’ No. It’s going to be, ‘What’s happened to the Saints?’ 0-3 needs to be 3-0.”
McCown, making his first start since a disastrous outing for Jacksonville in 2011, played better than anybody could have expected.
Accurate and efficient, McCown completed 31 of 38 passes for 310 yards and staked New Orleans to a 10-0 lead in the first half with two methodical drives that kept the defense off the field and rested. When Mark Ingram capped a 16-play, 94-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown run, the defense had a chance to hit the Panthers with a knockout punch.
Then Newton and Olsen went to work.
Newton, who had been inconsistent as a passer through the first two games as he tried to adjust to a receiving corps that has neither Kelvin Benjamin nor Jerricho Cotchery, threw for 315 yards, largely by targeting Olsen,the only proven target the Panthers have left.
New Orleans has played in enough games against Olsen to know how valuable he is to Newton. And the Saints tried a variety of coverages on the big tight end. Vaccaro rotated onto Olsen at times, the linebackers tried to pick him up cutting across the middle in zone coverage and even nickel back Damian Swann matched up against Olsen in man-to-man coverage at times.
Olsen caught eight passes for 134 yards, including a 52-yard deep ball against Brandon Browner, the Saints’ prized free-agent acquisition.
“He caught one in zone; he had a little seam ball,” Vaccaro said. “He made some plays. He’s their biggest threat on their team, and we knew that coming in.”
Olsen moved all over the formation, but he did his best work when the Panthers needed it most, answering the Saints’ biggest early pushes with a pair of 11-yard touchdowns. After Ingram’s touchdown, Olsen got the Panthers on the board, and he responded again after Saints rookie Marcus Murphy returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown to give the Saints a 16-10 lead.
“We knew where he was,” the Saints’ David Hawthorne said. “It’s just a matter of guys stepping up and making plays on him.”
Browner, the established veteran opposite CFL import Delvin Breaux, found himself the target of Newton’s deep throws.
Working against Browner, burner Ted Ginn got free for a 55-yard pass to set up Olsen’s second touchdown, just two plays after Browner had been flagged for an illegal contact penalty that erased a third-and-13 opportunity for the defense.
“We were in zone coverage; I should have been deep on both plays,” Browner said. “I gave up two big plays, speaking for myself.”
New Orleans also struggled to get a pass rush on Newton, in part because of the threat of his feet.
Rather than pin their ears back and attack Newton, the Saints tried to keep him in the pocket, and the Panthers’ franchise quarterback picked the defense apart. New Orleans registered only one sack, a second-effort takedown by rookie Hau’oli Kikaha, and got little pressure outside of pass rusher Kasim Edebali.
Newton rushed for only 33 yards on seven carries — 13 of which came on the eventual game-winning touchdown on a bootleg in the fourth quarter — but he beat the Saints with his arm.
“Keeping containment was a big deal,” Kikaha said. “We don’t want this guy to beat us with his feet. It makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s Cam Newton; he can cut you up with his feet, and I thought we did a decent job with that. It was one of our focus points, and that dictates your rush a little bit. It’s difficult with a dual-threat guy. You can’t have everything.”
The Panthers rushed for 119 yards on 30 carries, extending drives as they built a 27-16 lead with 9:32 left.
“Every time you play Carolina, it’s a lot of deception with your eyes,” Hawthorne said. “I think guys just have to lock in and focus and take care of business.”
McCown nearly directed a comeback with two long drives, but a last-ditch effort ended when Carolina’s Josh Norman made a fantastic leaping interception on a deep ball to Brandin Cooks in the end zone.
The New Orleans defense gave McCown a chance to win by forcing a three-and-out to set up McCown’s final opportunity.
But the Saints needed to keep Newton in check earlier in the game. Now, New Orleans has to find the momentum built on defense against Tampa Bay last week.
“I think we have a real prideful defense,” Vaccaro said. “Everybody wants to be great. We’ve just got to take a hard look at ourselves.”
With Brees still on his way back from injury and questions all over, the entire Saints roster has to find some answers.