After losing Malcolm Jenkins on the first defensive series in a meaningless Week 17 game last year contributed to the Saints’ early exit from the postseason, surely they didn’t play their starters very long this time around, right? Not quite; New Orleans still had a chance to move up a spot in the Playoff seeding with a win and 49ers loss, and the Saints decided that keeping their momentum was worth the risk of injury. In hindsight the decision looks like a good one because nobody got hurt and the New Orleans offense put up at least 42 points and more than doubled their opponent’s score for the third consecutive game. They did it without Jenkins, Lance Moore, or Jonathan Vilma, whose leadership on the field can’t be quantified the same way his overrated play can be. In the end, it felt less like a game between the Saints and Panthers and more like a battle of the Saints against various NFL and franchise records.
While they were bullied by a team missing some key players, the Panthers had a performance to be proud of in the first half. With 1:24 remaining in the half, the score was actually tied 17-17, but the Panthers weren’t prepared for the Saints quick-strike offense to try to score again and yielded a 42-yard touchdown to Marques Colston with only seven seconds remaining. That letdown carried over into the second half and the Panthers were unable to score again while giving up another three touchdown passes. Carolina suffered a blowout and fell to 6-10, but that record is better than many predicted before the season and the season can be considered a success despite the losing record. Expectations will be higher next year as the Panthers showed plenty to build upon this year.
Carolina – Three Performances of Note
Hard to Cover If You Can’t Get Pressure
Anytime you allow 45 points, the defense obviously was outperformed by the offense more often than not and this game was no different with a whopping 11 defenders grading in the red for the Panthers. The Saints had no trouble moving the ball with only three drives that didn’t produce points. Worse, Carolina never managed to force a single three-and-out series and only one Saints’ drive went for less than 44 yards. One big reason the Panthers were so unable to limit the damage was an incredibly unproductive performance rushing the passer. Saints’ quarterbacks dropped back to pass 39 times, but the Panthers were able to pressure them only four times with no hits or sacks and two tipped passes. Greg Hardy (-1.6) was the most ineffective of the rushers with no pressure whatsoever despite rushing the passer a team-leading 32 times. It’s been a rough final month of the season for Hardy with three of four games grading in the red and this game bringing his first pressure-less game of the season. Hardy also contributed one of the ten missed tackles the Panthers committed on defense.
And Hard to Get Pressure if You Can’t Cover
It’s hard to play great pass defense when your front can’t get any pressure, but the Panthers secondary didn’t do itself any favors with blown coverages and missed tackles aplenty. It didn’t help that cornerback Darius Butler left the game with a broken arm after only nine snaps. His replacement in the base defense, R.J. Stanford, got his first career interception when Drew Brees apparently missed him waiting to undercut Darren Sproles’ route. Surprisingly, Brees didn’t attack Stanford or rookie Brandon Hogan in the nickel much, instead preferring to hand Chris Gamble (-3.4) his worst game of the season. Gamble has had a borderline Pro Bowl-caliber season but looked anything but in New Orleans. Gamble allowed four receptions on five targets and didn’t make a single positively-graded play as even the one incompletion was merely an overthrown ball that Colston couldn’t quite reel in. It wasn’t all about struggles in coverage though with Gamble also missing three tackles in the run game. Two of them resulted in the running back picking up enough additional yardage for a first down when he would have been stopped short otherwise. Not the best way to cap a fine season, but Gamble can take solace in knowing his struggles came against possibly the most dangerous offense in the league right now.
Run Game Does its Part
The Panthers picked up chunks of yardage on the ground with ease and were rarely forced into third-down situations. Unfortunately their defensive struggles caused them to lean more on the pass and run the ball only 24 times. Left guard Travelle Wharton (+3.3) was responsible for some of that success with some big one-on-one blocks. At 1:47 remaining in the first quarter he gets under the arms of Shaun Rogers (-1.2) and forces him out of the running lane, opening a huge hole for Deangelo Williams to burst through and freeing up other players to make blocks at the second level for a nice 13-yard gain. Williams and Jonathan Stewart (+1.9) both had a high yards per carry average, but Stewart was a little better. Stewart ran the ball nine times for 79 yards and had seven positively-graded runs, though one occurred on a play nullified by penalty. His most impressive run of the day came with 1:25 remaining in the second quarter. It was a rare eight-man rush and there were multiple Saints in the backfield when Stewart took the handoff, but he hit the hole quickly and decisively and outran the blitz for a 29-yard touchdown, demonstrating great vision and burst.
New Orleans– Three Performances of Note
Acknowledging the Offensive Standouts
With 13 offensive players grading in the green, there’s plenty of positives to talk about and not nearly enough space to give every player their due credit, so we’ll focus on the best of the best offensive performances. The offensive line earned our second-best Pass Blocking Efficiency rating this week and only Brian De La Puente graded negatively run-blocking. Carl Nicks (+4.6) was the standout with a perfect game in protection and made some dominant plays in the run game. He was ready to punish Panthers defenders from the start and laid two Panthers on their backs on the third offensive snap for New Orleans. Watch as Nicks throws Ogemdi Nwagbuo to the ground at the line of scrimmage before getting out in front of the screen pass and mauling James Anderson (-3.6) over with apparent ease and you can’t help but be impressed. Fullback Jed Collins (+4.2) also made a key block at the second level on that play as he enjoyed his best game this year. He cemented his top ranking among fullbacks in terms of blocking by keeping Carolina linebackers away from the ball-carrier on more than a few runs and was rewarded with his second touchdown reception of the season. Drew Brees (+6.5) hit all of his targets with success, but Marques Colston (+4.1) stood out with 145 yards and two touchdowns on seven catches, making some impressive grabs along the way.
Robinson Poised to Break Out?
While the Saints’ offense continues to operate nearly flawlessly and gets all the attention with their record conquests, the defense has some nice storylines of its own, including the progression of second-year cornerback Patrick Robinson (+3.0). He’s had his ups and downs as all young players do, but the ups have outweighed the downs, especially lately. Robinson has graded in the green in each of the last three games and he has collected half of his four interceptions in that span. He’s yielded a combined 25 yards while being targeted 14 times over those three games. Against the Panthers he gave up three catches for only eight yards. You’ve probably already saw his toe-tapping interception in the end zone in the highlights, but that wasn’t the only play he made. At 8:45 in the third quarter Stewart moves out wide for a quick wide receiver-style screen pass, but Robinson recognizes it immediately and wraps him up for a four-yard loss immediately after Stewart catches the ball. He also made a big play on 3rd-and-six later in the game when he brought Steve Smith down in the open field for a mere 1-yard gain. Robinson is playing his best football right now so it will be interesting to see how he is used against Detroit in the Playoffs.
Invisible Defensive Line
With three 300+ pound linemen who see regular playing time, it’s not very easy for the Saints’ defensive line to go unnoticed, but that’s exactly what happened. Far too often large bodies were pushed around by a single offensive lineman, making the Saints’ weak linebacker unit look even worse as Carolina blockers routinely got to the second level on running plays. Sedrick Ellis and Aubrayo Frankin were completely missing on the stat sheet, but neither of them played more than 19 snaps. More concerning was Shaun Rogers’ (-1.2) performance as his sole contribution to the stat sheet in 26 snaps was a missed tackle. Tom Johnson (-1.2) was the only defensive tackle to even make a tackle. On the edges, Cameron Jordan got his first career sack and should have had two, but on the other side Will Smith (-3.4) struggled. Smith got pressure only once in 27 snaps rushing the passer and was either forced out of position or took himself out of position on a few run plays. The Saints are already lacking in pass rush and need Smith to be in better form against Detroit.
– Marques Colston’sbig game put him over a thousand yards for the fifth time in his career, a new franchise record for the Saints.
– Jimmy Graham (+3.0) broke Kellen Winslow’s record for receiving yardage for a tight end, only to have his mark bested by Rob Gronkowski.
– A week after breaking Dan Marino’s passing yardage record, Brees extended his own records for consecutive 300-yard passing games and total 300-yard passing performances in a season to seven and thirteen respectively.
PFF Game Ball
Drew Brees has enough accolades already, so we’ll award Marques Colston a game ball in honor of his passing Joe Horn for most 1,000-yard receiving seasons in franchise history. Not bad for a seventh-round pick from Hofstra.