NFC South rivals headed in opposite directions face off in Charlotte
New Orleans has started 0-2 for the fourth consecutive season. The defense has been far too porous in terms of yards and points allowed. Drew Brees and the offense have settled for too many field goal attempts, when the Saints aren't punting.
Carolina’s defense has smothered the 49ers and Bills. The Panthers are the only team in the NFL that has yet to allow a touchdown so far this season. More impressive than that is their limiting each of their first two opponents to a mere field goal.
Carolina leads the all-time series, 24-20. For games played in Charlotte, the Panthers lead 11-10. The Panthers have won seven of the past 10 meetings between these NFC South Division rivals.
New Orleans at Carolina
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 24 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Saints +6
Three Things to Watch
1. Status of Cam Newton’s ankle
Newton appears on the early injury report, presumably because of an ankle injury he suffered last week against Buffalo. Six sacks and seven quarterback hurries probably have something to do with the issue as well. He’s been limited in practice this week, but that’s nothing new considering the Panthers have taken it easy with their franchise quarterback coming back from offseason shoulder surgery.
The good news is that not only was he able to finish the game against the Bills, he managed to pick up 27 rushing yards on five carries after gaining just three yards on six attempts in Week 1. Newton’s mobility is definitely something to keep an eye on in this game, as the passing game has yet to find its rhythm (399 yards, 2 TDs, 59.6 percent completion rate) and now must deal with the prolonged absence of Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen. The fact that Newton appears to be less than 100 percent healthy when it comes both his arm and legs means the Saints’ beleaguered defense could be catching a much-needed break.
2. How can the Saints find the end zone instead of settling for field goal attempts?
New Orleans’ sole touchdown in the opener at Minnesota occurred in the final two minutes of the game when the Saints were down by 17 points. Against New England, they did not score a touchdown until the second quarter; at which point the Patriots had already found the end zone three times in the first quarter alone. Even with the touchdown, New Orleans still trailed 20-10 at home before eventually losing 36-20.
One contributing factor to the lack of touchdowns is an inability to run the ball. In Week 1, the Saints had 60 rushing yards (2.9 ypc). This past Sunday, those numbers went up (81, 4.8) but are grossly inflated by Mark Ingram’s 28-yard gain on the final play of the game. Falling behind early in both games forced head coach Sean Payton to abandon the running game for the most part.
Carolina’s not exactly the opponent to try and get your running game going against either. The Panthers held San Francisco to 51 rushing yards (3.4 ypc) in Week 1 with Buffalo not faring much better (69, 3.0 ypc). And don’t forget the 49ers have Carlos Hyde, whose run for 208 yards in his past two games against the Seahawks and Rams, while the Bills have LeSean McCoy, the NFL’s sixth-leading rusher in 2016.
Instead, New Orleans’ scoring has come primarily courtesy of Will Lutz, who has connected on six of his first seven field goal attempts. His only miss was on a 49-yard try in the third quarter against New England that clanged off the upright. Lutz has done his job, but the Saints would rather see him out there to kick PATs rather than FGs.
3. Absence of Greg Olsen relieves pressure on Saints’ secondary?
Seven defensive backs have already taken the field for a double-digit number of plays for the New Orleans this season. No combination of any of those has prevented the defense from being torched for 341 and 436 passing yards, respectively, in the first two games.
Five of the current defensive backs were part of last year’s unit that allowed 303 passing yards to Carolina in their first meeting. That included six receptions for 94 yards for Olsen in a home victory for New Orleans. Does the fact that Olsen, a three-time Pro Bowler and Newton’s favorite target, will miss up to eight weeks with a broken foot improve the Saints’ chances of limiting the Panthers’ offense?
Is it too early for the Saints to hit to the panic button? They have already fallen two games behind both Carolina and Atlanta. Any shot at contending for the NFC South title requires a win in Charlotte. Not only would a victory narrow the difference in overall records between these two teams but also give New Orleans a crucial divisional win. Losing the first three games of the season for a third consecutive year could likely destroy the motivation of the team and end any realistic shot at the playoffs.
Automotive metaphors most accurately describe the team from the land of NASCAR. Carolina is missing a piston (Greg Olsen) from its offensive machine. The ignition (Cam Newton) might have some issues too. However, the Panthers’ defense has demonstrated it can slam the brakes on opponents’ offenses. Even a weakened Panther offense will score enough points on a decrepit Saints defense.
Prediction: Panthers 27, Saints 13
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.