ReFo: Saints @ Panthers, Week 2

| September 17, 2012

The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers entered Sunday’s game looking to rebound from Week 1 losses and avoid the dreaded 0-2 hole and an early last place spot in the NFC South standings.

The Saints were expected to improve on what was a sluggish performance against the Washington Redskins and the offense came out hot, scoring on an 11-play, 80-yard drive culminating in a Drew Brees-to-Jimmy Graham touchdown pass. Unfortunately for them, the rest of the game did not quite go the same way, as New Orleans fell behind in the mid-second quarter and never recovered.

Similarly, Carolina was coming off a game in which the offense was expected to come out firing but sputtered instead. Here, led by a strong rushing attack, the Panthers were able to rally and take advantage of a struggling New Orleans defense.

Let’s take a look at how the Panthers bounced back and the Saints became the only winless team in the NFC, suddenly in a desperate situation just two weeks into the season.

New Orleans – Three Performances of Note

Not What We’ve Come to Expect

Playing a team against which Brees competed 75% of his passes for over 700 yards and seven TDs in two games last season, many expected a bounce-back week for the Saints’ passing offense. That didn’t turn out to be the case, as the offense moved the ball with ease at times but ultimately made too many costly mistakes. Many of those mistakes came from the normally cool Brees (-1.2), who recorded his lowest grade since Week 7 of the 2010 season. The Saints’ QB made a number of poor throws; none worse than the pick-6 to Charles Godfrey on a pass intended for TE Dave Thomas that should have never been thrown. And, for the second week in a row, any chance of a Saints comeback ended with Brees throwing his second interception on a forced ball over the middle of the field. The receivers had their share of errors, dropping five passes, including what would have likely been two touchdown passes on the third drive of the game.

Particularly concerning about the Saints’ passing game was the lack of verticality. A week after attempting 11 balls thrown 20+ yards down field (a number that led the league), Brees attempted just two such deep balls, while only 10 of his 42 passes (excluding balls thrown away) were thrown further than 10 yards in the air. In fact, 73% of his passes targeted RBs and TEs, making the loss of Robert Meachem to San Diego look even more significant.

The problems in the passing game extended to the offensive line as well, with Brees facing pressure on 40% of his drop backs. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod was repeatedly abused, allowing seven hurries and three hits, a performance good for a -5.0 grade in pass protection.

Defensive Struggles Continue

After a strong showing in run defense against Washington, New Orleans was gashed up front against the Panthers’ shotgun-based rushing attack. Whether on zone reads, options, or traditional runs, the defense had no answer, allowing 5.3 yards per carry and several long gains, though it wasn’t defenders losing individual battles as much as it was the entire defense being caught out of position much of the game. Missed tackles continued to plague the Saints, with the defense missing 10, a problem we pointed out coming into the game.

Elsewhere, the defensive line continues to struggle rushing the passer, generating just one sack which was largely a product of good coverage, and giving Newton all day in the pocket on several occasions. Only reserves Tom Johnson and rookie Akiem Hicks provided much of a spark in the passing game, though the pair combined to play just 35 snaps. Perhaps a testament to just how bad the pass rush is, the performance was a major improvement over Week 1 and most of 2011, as the defense generated pressure on 39% of Newton’s drop backs. The same can be said for the coverage, where Roman Harper, Patrick Robinson, and Malcolm Jenkins all improved on Week 1 performances; Corey White (-2.0), however, allowed five catches on six targets for 120 yards. On the season White has given up completions on all but one pass targeted his way.

Strong Running Game

If there was one positive for the Saints in their defeat Sunday, it was the success of the running game. After struggling to run the ball against Washington, New Orleans rushed 27 times for 163 yards. Leading the attack was Pierre Thomas (+4.0), who averaged 12.2 yards per carry on his nine attempts and added four receptions. What was most impressive about Thomas’ day was his ability to run through contact, as he forced 12 missed tackles on 13 touches, gaining 77% of his total yards after contact; a performance good for an unheard of Elusive Rating of 717.9. Mark Ingram was not bad himself in this regard with 48 of his 53 rushing yards coming after initial contact. And, while a lot of the yards were made by the RBs after contact, credit the offense line as well: only Zach Strief graded negatively for his run blocking efforts.

Surprisingly, despite playing the most snaps of the trio and being the game’s leading receiver, Darren Sproles didn’t receive a single carry.

Carolina – Three Performances of Note

Run Game

After running only 11 times in Week 1, the Panthers’ offense got back to its bread and butter against the Saints, calling 38 designed runs (in addition to two scrambles) that went for 223 yards, with over half coming after contact. The trio of Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams, and Jonathan Stewart each received over 10 carries and averaged over 4.5 yards per. They were particularly effective running to the outside behind tackle Jordan Gross or tight end Greg Olsen (+2.6 run block), gaining 76 yards on seven carries on runs to the right edge and a solid 4.4 yards per carry to the left.

Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski often utilized three-wide receiver looks that forced the Saints’ defense to play in their nickel package, which they used on roughly two thirds of defensive snaps. He also attacked the defense in a variety of ways, using option, zone read, and traditional handoffs that opened some pretty sizable holes for his runners. On one such play at 1:20 of the first quarter, the offense set up in a three-wide pistol formation with Williams lined up directly behind Newton. At the snap, Newton executed a zone read with Mike Tolbert lined up next to him, prompting defensive end Cam Jordan to push toward the middle of the line and leave open the right edge behind him. Newton, making the proper read, kept the ball and ran an option with Williams to the right, using the threat of a pitch to elude safety Malcolm Jenkins. With an excellent block by Olsen on linebacker Scott Shanle, Newton was off to a 40-yard gain.

Efficient Newton

With the running game largely stealing the show for Carolina, Newton (+1.5) was efficient when he did have to pass, making some crucial third-down completions to keep the Saints’ offense on the sideline. Benefiting from solid — though not spectacular — pass protection, Newton was 4-for-4 on deep passes and earned a 70% overall completion percentage, a mark he only reached three times in his rookie season.

He did make some poor plays, however, including a pass right to Patrick Robinson and a fumble on a pitch to Tolbert, though this occurred on a fourth down deep in New Orleans territory. Cam was also responsible for the lone sack of the day, holding onto the ball much too long. Fortunately for the Panthers, these mistakes are largely experience-related and will likely improve.

Limiting Brees

While the Panthers’ defense didn’t have a dominant game, they did just enough to slow down the potent Saints passing attack, forcing Brees into making some uncharacteristic mistakes.

The pass rush improved on their Week 1 performance, ending with 22 quarterback disruptions (15 hurries, seven hits, two sacks) and a batted pass. Frank Alexander (+1.8 pass rush) had the best day of the group, while Brees’ pick-6 pass was largely caused by Charles Johnson’s unblocked pressure in the first quarter. Johnson (+1.4) also added a forced fumble on a fourth down late in the game.

In pass defense, the Panthers did an effective job at limiting the deep ball, holding Brees to one completion on two attempts. This was largely in part to keeping safety Haruki Nakamura deep on over 80% of his 75 snaps. Charles Godfrey also lined up at the free safety position on over half of his snaps.

Game Notes

-  Mark Ingram ran the ball on 16 of his 21 snaps, while Darren Sproles had no carries in 36 snaps.

-  Panthers RT Byron Bell gave up no sacks, hits, or hurries in 59 offensive snaps.

-  Garret Hartley’s second-quarter 53-yard field goal was the longest of his career

PFF Game Ball

Though the Panthers won the game with a balanced attack, no one player stood out as much as Saints RB Pierre Thomas. His 12 missed tackles forced nearly broke our Elusive Rating and it’s time to start the yearly conversation about getting the ball in his hands more often; assuming he stays healthy, of course.

 

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