As good of a season as Cam Newton has had, he is still not a quarterback who can drop back down after down and pick apart a defense through the air. He needs the threat of his own legs. He needs manageable 3rd downs. That’s why this matchup is ultimately about the Panthers’ running game.
For Carolina to win, they need to maintain balance, utilizing the distinct advantage their offensive line has against the Saints D-line. For the Saints to win, they need to score often and open up a big lead, making Cam Newton and the Panthers offense one-dimensional.
In their first matchup, Rob Ryan was able to catch Newton off guard by disguising coverages. The Saints played lots of zone defense, where defenders wouldn’t turn their backs to Newton in case he scrambled. The defensive line kept Newton in front of them with their pass rush. Instead of rushing upfield, they rushed inward in an effort to collapse the pocket and not allow quick and easy escape lanes for Cam.
Newton was too slow moving through his progressions in their first matchup. Instead of planting his back foot and throwing the ball on time, he held onto the ball and stayed on covered receivers too long.
Sometimes the plays weren’t obvious. Newton wasn’t necessarily missing wide-open 40-yard passes. He was missing 4, 6, and 8-yard passes that would have kept the chains moving. This is the difference between being a good quarterback who can make some spectacular plays and being an elite passer with the precision to play at the highest level every single week.
The Panthers had one distinct advantage on offense – running the ball. They had success running the ball between the tackles early. Their offensive line was moving the Saints up front. To win this Sunday, the Panthers will need to stick with their ground attack for the entire game. Why didn’t they do this in their previous matchup? We have to look at the other side of the ball to understand.
On defense, Panthers defensive backs just didn’t get their hands on Saints receivers enough. They did play some press coverage early, but they didn’t play a ton of it, instead allowing way too many free releases.
Even still, the Saints only led 14-6 with 2:01 remaining in the first half. That’s not a terrible situation for the Panthers to be in on the road heading into the locker room. 3 plays, 19 seconds, and 61 yards later, the Saints were inside the red zone, easily within striking distance.
In these 19 seconds, the Panthers did not jam receivers. They did not redirect. They did not disrupt the play at all. Instead they allowed Lance Moore a free release off the line for the first reception on the drive. Then they allowed Marques Colston to get into his route unimpeded. A screen pass on the third play vs soft quarter-quarter-half coverage put the Saints in the red zone.
Once the Saints made the score 21-6, the Panthers offense became one-dimensional.
In the 2nd half, the Panthers played more man and jammed Saints receivers with much greater success. They’ll have to do this again on Sunday to have any shot of winning.
The Saints offense does not have elite wide receivers. Aside from Drew Brees, the passing game is so deadly because of the route combinations and personnel distribution. These two things put defenses in tough situations. Most of the time, somebody breaks open.
Tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles are the players New Orleans uses to create mismatches. They can line up anywhere and are difficult one-on-one matchups for any defense. However, it makes little sense for defenders not to try and get their hands on them in order to disrupt their routes. If Graham and Sproles are able to release off the line easily, they are virtually uncoverable. This is especially true with Jimmy Graham. Think about it, if he can make big catches in traffic with defenders crawling all over him, he can certainly make big plays when he’s given a free release and can get to his spots on time and unimpeded.
It is vital for Panthers defensive backs to get their hands on Saints receivers. This doesn’t necessarily mean play press-man on every snap, although a healthy dose would be wise. Instead, it means not letting the offense get in rhythm. It means disrupting Drew Brees’ timing so the pass rush can be a factor. It means creating big plays on defense instead of playing simply to not give up big plays.
The Panthers have a huge opportunity on Sunday. The Saints are on the ropes and have struggled on the road this season. But the Panthers won’t win this one by playing to avoid making mistakes. The defense needs to be aggressive to keep their own running game a factor. If they don’t, they’ll just be another example of a team that blows a huge opportunity by playing it safe.