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[Editor’s note:  Former Broncos G.M. Ted Sundquist provides us with exclusive scouting reports for three games every week.  Here’s his first offering for Week Seven.] 
The balance of power shifted mightily in the NFC South last weekend when the Carolina Panthers tumbled back down to the rest of the division after a 27-3 defeat to Tampa Bay. With Atlanta showcasing rookie QB Matt Ryan to the tough Chicago defense (and winning) and New Orleans curing what ailed them to the tune of a 34-3 win over Oakland, this Panthers/Saints matchup got a whole lot more interesting. 
The division is full of anomalies; New Orleans and their explosive offense/struggling defense (at times), Atlanta at 4-2 and rebuilding, Tampa Bay winning with two different QBs and Carolina looking every bit an NFC powerhouse (then losing by 24). This game may certainly stand as the midseason marker for both clubs, either pulling the Saints back into the race or potentially widening the lead for the Panthers over the rest of the South.
As you study Carolina, it doesn’t take very long to see that this is an offense that has thrived off the big play for most of the first half of this season. The Panthers won’t dominate you with time of possession (30:59), they are one of the poorer teams in converting 3rd downs (27), they struggle with success in the red zone (bottom 3rd in most categories), can’t really be described as a ball-control offense (5 drives of 5 min+) and are about average with drives of 10 or more plays. What they can do is spread the ball around to a number of different receivers (Muhammad, Smith and Hackett), find the outlet to the TE (Rosario and King) or dump off to the RB (Williams). This has netted a big-play threat to opponents in both the run and pass game. QB Jake Delhomme returned from Tommy John surgery in solid fashion until the Tampa 2 forced three picks last Sunday. Delhomme had done an admirable job up until that point in directing the Carolina offense to 114 points over 5 games. The turnover bug on the road is never a healthy thing to catch as the Bucs held the Panthers to 3 of 12 on 3rd down, 2.0 yds per carry and forced Delhomme into his worst completion percentage on the season (51.28%). Tampa held the ball almost a full 10 minutes longer than Carolina.
So, where do they go from here? Straight at the Saints suspect secondary. New Orleans is tender to the big-play pass and has surrendered 58 receptions over 10+ yards, another 21 over 20+ yards (ranks dead last in the NFL). Opponents have hit the Saints for 21 quick-strike drives (4 or less plays). The problem lies on first down. New Orleans struggles to slow down the run on 1st (52.6% over 4 yards), opening up a number of options on 2nd. Carolina has averaged just about 4 yards per carry on 1st and has shown good balance overall between run/pass. Opponents go after the Saints deep (early and often), especially to the middle of the field. Look for Carolina to use the size of Muhsin Muhammad (knee) and the speed of Steve Smith to create the big play deep (KEY #1). Both receivers are averaging about 15.0+ yards per catch and present the vertical threat. The combo reminds me of Denver’s Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, who hit the Saints for 10 receptions, 166 yards and 1 TD (albeit most on Marshall’s end). Mike McKenzie has been nursing his reconstructed knee this week, Randall Gay continues to battle a lingering hamstring pull, and Jason David is suspect when forced to play man coverage. Rookie Tracy Porter was placed on IR with a wrist injury, so the Saints really have no place else to turn.
Defensively the Panthers will need to slow down the highpowered passing game that is the New Orleans offense. If you think the Panthers can hit the deep ball, wait ‘til you see Drew Brees and his crew. Brees and the Saints lead the League in passing yards per game, the only team averaging over 300+ at the moment. They have the most pass plays of 20+ yards, lead the League in 3rd and long conversions, have 28 quick-strike drives, have scored 172 points and just about go up and down the field at will. Brees enjoys plenty of time in the pocket and is seeing the field as well as he ever has in his career. Fifteen different receivers have at least 2 receptions. It was a loss to Washington that painted the blueprint for slowing down the Saints QB (like all other QBs), PRESSURE. Brees was sacked twice, hurried twice and threw two picks (a 3rd was nullified by penalty). It was easily one of his worst outings of the year; 216 yards, 5.6 per completion, 3 of 10 on 3rd down, 69.8 rating. Carolina needs to find the same pressure they put on Minnesota, Atlanta and Kansas City (8 sacks). The Panthers never got to Tampa’s Jeff Garcia and paid dearly for it. The lack of pressure equated to a lack of turnovers, and with their own troubles hanging on to the ball, some 10 minutes in play-time differential. KEY #2 will be Carolina’s DE Julius Peppers on New Orleans’s LOT Jammal Brown. Brown has 3 holding calls and one sack against him, while Peppers leads the Panthers with 3 sacks over 6 games. If Peppers can generate some heat off the edge, it could benefit a Panthers secondary that has struggled to turn the pick this season (3). Carolina is also one of the better teams creating pressure off the blitz, so look for an extra man or two to potentially make a difference against Brees (85.11 rating vs blitz (17th)).
KEY #3 will be the running game of New Orleans (they really haven’t had one). In Carolina’s two losses, they have subsequently given up the most yards on the ground. A lot of which was the Bucs and Vikings running out the clock, but New Orleans will need to find balance in their offense. Carolina, though not creating the turnover, has done a fine job in holding down the opponent’s passing attack. The Panthers are 2nd in the League vs the pass (158.8 yards per game), tied for 4th preventing 3rd down conversions and 4th suppressing the “big play”. The Saints will want to throw, but they’ll need every bit of the 3.2 yards they’re generating on 1st down via the ground. After that, it’s 2-to-1 through the air on 2nd and 3rd. The Panthers have been tight off tackle vs. the run, but suspect up the middle. Look for the matchup of Saints OC Jonathan Goodwin on Panther DT Maake Kemoeatu. Kemoeatu is a massive inside presence (6’5″ 345 lbs), but if Goodwin can cut him off and control lateral flow, the Saint backs might find some inside run room (pushing 5 yards per carry by past opponents on Carolina). By contrast, the Saints are last in the League when attacking straight up the gut. I think RB Deuce McAllister, in a similar role that he played vs Oakland, would be well served in the New Orleans game plan. With obvious emphasis on stopping the Muhammad/Smith duo, Carolina will look to find TEs Dante Rosario (15 receptions, 166 yards, 11.1 average & 1 TD) and Jeff King (9 for 75 yards) as outlets to their passing game. Rosario and King can both turn the big play when given the chance and Delhomme will need an alternate target to offset the attention his WRs will garner.
Look for the coverage of SLB Scott Fujita to be KEY #4 for the Saints. If Fujita can shut down the outlet route to the tight ends and force the ball to RB DeAngelo Williams, the Saints can swarm to the flats where they are fairly solid at keeping contain and shutting down the big gains. Williams is obviously a weapon with the ball in his hands from any position on the field, but take away his 25-yard TD reception and he is 8 for 32 yards. At 6’5″ 250 lbs, Fujita has the prototype build for the SAM position. His length and running ability parallel that of most TEs. I like this matchup in favor of the Saints.  
KEY #5 is the punting of Carolina’s Jason Baker. Baker is averaging 46.6 yards per punt, with a 37.6 net. But more importantly, he has pinned opponents 12 times inside the 20 yard line. With the quick-strike ability of the Saints’ offense, it would be to Carolina’s advantage to make New Orleans go the long way in front of a hostile crowd. We’ve already seen time and again the advantages of having such a weapon on special teams. New Orleans has already had 17 drives starting inside their own 20 on the season. The Panthers will want to add some more to that number.

Permalink 8 Comments Feed for comments Latest Stories in: Carolina Panthers, Features, Home, New Orleans Saints
  1. saintsfan504 says: Oct 17, 2008 6:22 PM

    I like how you mention Carolina’s punt game and the Saints starting drive inside their own 20, but you fail to mention that Reggie Bush already has THREE PUNT RETURNS FOR TOUCHDOWNS THIS SEASON!

  2. NC_Biscuit says: Oct 17, 2008 6:34 PM

    Yeah, Jason Baker is a great punter… when the line blocks for him…

  3. mcfadden20 says: Oct 17, 2008 6:39 PM

    Hmmm. Reggie Bush not even mentioned in this “scouting report.” Somehow, I think Bush might have an impact in this game by his performance on the field and through the hours Carolina’s defense/special teams spent this week gameplanning for him.

  4. screaming sheep says: Oct 17, 2008 6:40 PM

    And no mention of 3 blocked punts in 6 games. Would think that would be a key if your gonna mention Jason Bakers punting.
    Carolina creates pressure off the blitz? Both times they have done it this year?

  5. paulwhiskey336 says: Oct 17, 2008 7:06 PM

    Great stuff Ted. Rich and compelling. Lol no really enjoyed the read. We finally got a breakdown of a Panthers game! Keep up the good work.

  6. CD_Ridge says: Oct 17, 2008 8:46 PM

    Good points, but do not overlook this key.
    Key #6: Saints punt return vs. Panthers punt team. Not only have the Saints returned 3 punts for touchdowns (as mentioned by saintsfan504). The Panthers have had 3 punts blocked, one this past week by the Buccaneers returned for a TD. Additionally, Carolina’s punt- and kickoff-return units are both ranked in the lower half of the league.

  7. catfannovar says: Oct 17, 2008 10:07 PM

    I like our chances with Richard Marshall gunning on kick coverage. This should be one of the most entertaining games this week.

  8. misterhatter says: Oct 17, 2008 11:02 PM

    These games are always fun to watch.
    Here’s a video of Fujita’s cheap shot on Steve Smith.

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