3TFO: Panthers @ Saints, Week 14
The NFL is a league of immediate gratification, but the 2013 Panthers are showing us that patience pays off. After Ron Rivera and Cam Newton fell short of the playoffs in their first two seasons, everyone was ready to bury them again after a 1-3 start. But eight straight wins have gradually converted their critics, and Carolina is now the hottest team in the NFL this side of Seattle. They’ve conquered every challenge thrown at them in the past two months, and now they’ll finally face the best their division has to offer.
The Saints are licking their wounds after a humiliating loss in Seattle, but they can take comfort knowing that whatever disadvantage they faced on the road last week is exactly what the Panthers will be burdened with this Sunday. New Orleans has won its last eight primetime home games, beating its opponents by an average of 24 points. Maybe it’s the collective voices of thousands of fans who’ve just spent seven hours pregaming on Bourbon Street, but the Superdome is always more intimidating at night.
The Panthers swept the Saints last year in a pair of shootouts, but the improvement we’ve seen this season from both these defenses should give us a more low-scoring affair this time around. The winner will be in the driver’s seat for not only the NFC South title, but also a first round playoff bye. With so much at stake, let’s look at which matchups may make the difference.
Newton and Williams vs. Saints Run Defense
Some see the Panthers’ recent winning streak and assume that Cam Newton has finally taken the leap as a polished NFL quarterback, but that’s simply not true. His -5.2 pass grade places him 21st out of 30 quarterbacks who have taken at least half their team’s snaps. He has a 63.9 quarterback rating on Deep Passes and is accurate on just 58.0% of his throws when under pressure. The good news is that he leads all quarterbacks in run grade for the third straight season. In short, Newton still makes most of his plays with his legs rather than his arm.
However, given recent history, the Panthers may not want to air the ball out much this week anyway. Since Newton joined the Panthers, the Saints’ efforts to stop Carolina’s running game have ranged from embarrassing to utterly hopeless. New Orleans allowed 492 rushing yards in their two losses to the Panthers last season, piling up 18 missed tackles in the process. DeAngelo Williams did the most damage, as 196 of his 210 rushing yards in last season’s finale came after contact. Carolina’s passing success feeds off its running game, as Newton has a 107.2 quarterback rating with play action passes versus just 79.9 without.
Despite recent results, the Saints have a better chance of stopping the Panthers’ running game this time around thanks to their improved defense. New Orleans has missed just 56 tackles this season after 128 last season. Akiem Hicks is emerging as an excellent run stopper in his second season; his 12.8 Run Stop Percentage is third-highest of any 3-4 defensive end with 100 run snaps this year. Rookie Kenny Vaccaro’s 14 run stops are tied for ninth-most among safeties. He has provided a spark to a secondary that has missed just 21 tackles this season after whiffing on 76 last year. Newton and Williams should expect more resistance from this new version of the Saints.
Brees vs. Kuechly and Davis
Despite their inept run defense, the Saints stayed in that Week 17 contest thanks to Drew Brees’ 396 yards and four touchdowns. The future Hall of Famer made full use of Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham to own the middle of the field, collecting 82% of his yards on throws between the numbers. Graham had a season-high 16 targets and nine catches in that game, with much of the damage coming against linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly. Flash back to his touchdown with 10:49 left in the third quarter; Davis lined up inside Graham, but the tight end quickly juked and muscled past him to get to the seam. Brees meanwhile froze Kuechly with play action, opening up the window to hit Graham in stride. Sproles presented a different challenge to the pair, zipping past them for 86 yards after the catch on eight receptions.
Sproles’ has had less of an impact this season as he’s struggling with injuries, but Pierre Thomas has been there to pick up the slack. While Sproles still leads all running backs with 495 receiving yards, Thomas tops the group with 542 yards after the catch. Altogether, the Saints’ 130 completions to their running backs this season are by far the most of any team. Graham’s 425 yards from the slot, where he’s most likely to encounter Davis and Kuechly, is second among tight ends this season. But those Panthers fans who watched K.J. Wright hold the Saints to just 21 yards after catch on 9 targets into his coverage on Monday night have reason to hope for an equally impressive performance this Sunday. Davis is right behind Wright this season with a +9.1 coverage grade, fourth-highest among all NFL linebackers. Though he allowed 78.1% of targets into his coverage to be caught, only 30% of those receptions have gone for a first down.
The weak link in this matchup may be Kuechly. Though he’s garnered Defensive Player of the Year hype thanks to the strong efforts of the Panthers defense, he’s been far from reliable in coverage this season with a -1.5 grade. Three weeks ago the Patriots, who also heavily target their tight ends and running backs, gashed him for four first downs on five targets. With 13:01 left in the fourth quarter, Kuechly bit on a run fake so badly that he was trailing Kenbrell Thompkins by 8 yards when the receiver caught the pass. Kuechly’s aggressiveness makes him actively involved in nearly every play, but that has hurt him nearly as much as it’s helped him this season. He must stay more disciplined against Brees.
Brown and Strief vs. Hardy and Johnson
Davis and Kuechly’s chances will be a lot better if they get strong support from one of the best pass rushing duos in recent seasons, defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. Hardy may not have the big contract that Johnson does, but his 54 quarterback pressures this season are the fourth-most of any 4-3 defensive end. He’ll face off Sunday against the weak link of the Saints’ line, left tackle Charles Brown. In his first year as a full-time starter, Brown has allowed the ninth-most quarterback pressures of any offensive tackle and incurred the second-most penalties. This blindside matchup certainly looks to favor the Panthers.
On the opposite edge we’ll find the more high-profile clash, as Johnson, with the third-highest Pass Rusingh Productivity of any 4-3 defensive end, will battle Zach Strief, who owns the highest pass blocking grade of any right tackle. Johnson got the best of this matchup last time, beating Strief to the outside for two sacks. Strief has only allowed three sacks this season, but each one has resulted in a forced fumble (including Michael Bennett’s scoop-and-score Monday night that kicked off the Seahawks’ rout). This isn’t surprising, as Brees has traditionally struggled the most when facing pressure from right tackle. Both Johnson and Strief enter this contest at the top of their game but slightly hampered by injuries. In a pivotal game that will alter the landscape of the NFC playoffs, this could be the single matchup that tips the scales in one team’s favor.
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