3TFO: Panthers @ Saints, Week 17
It’s hard to believe it, but the end of the season is finally here, and in the case of these two teams the final whistle can’t come soon enough. This divisional matchup, though meaningless, will give each team a chance to end the season on a high note, or at the very least will allow them to get a long look at some reserve players. The Saints will be looking to end the season with a win and an 8-8 record, which is disappointing considering their success in recent years, but also somewhat understandable given the distractions and disruption stemming from ‘Bounty-Gate’.
The Panthers’ season also didn’t go as planned, as many expected them to take a big step in Cam Newton’s second season. However, with three straight wins, they’re starting to look like the team we thought we’d see all season. And a win in New Orleans could give them some momentum heading into the offseason.
It’s difficult to anticipate what kind of game we’ll see with nothing on the line, other than pride and draft position. To that end, here are some potential matchups to watch.
Between the Numbers
With their stable of pass-catching backs and tight ends, the Saints will look to attack the middle of the field, where they were extremely successful against the Cowboys in Week 16. The task of defending the short and intermediate middle will primarily fall on linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, both of whom have been every-down players in the Panther defense. Kuechly’s had a solid rookie campaign and has displayed exceptional recognition and burst when the play is in front of him. However, he’s been less instinctive in coverage, struggling when making deeper drops and with the play behind him. The rookie’s allowed 80.6% of passes thrown his way to be completed for an average of 9.3 yards — 4.34 of that coming from YAC. With just 10 misses — five of them in the passing game — in close to 900 defensive snaps on the season, though, he’s a sound tackler. His teammate, the veteran Davis, has been much stronger in coverage — he’s allowed a similar percentage of passes to be caught (80%), but for a much lower average of 5.8 yards.
Look for Darren Sproles to get a heavy workload against the two Panther linebackers. He caught 13 passes on 14 targets in the Week 2 matchup between these two teams, and has averaged close to six targets per game for the season. With 18 forced missed tackles as a receiver, he’s dangerous in the open field, though he has trouble catching at times. His 10 drops lead the league at the position, but considering the amount of passes thrown his way — he averages a drop every 8.4 targets — that number isn’t quite as bad. Nevertheless, the Panthers have to remain disciplined while defending Sproles and force him to make tough catches. Likewise, they’ll have a difficult task in defending Jimmy Graham, with 68% of his targets going between the numbers. He’s also struggled with drops and is tied for the lead-league in that category. That won’t stop Drew Brees from targeting his big tight end, though, as evidenced by his 8.2 targets per game.
One specific area to keep an eye on is the New Orleans screen pass, which they use frequently, particularly to Pierre Thomas. With a season-high eight targets against Dallas, Thomas has seen his workload increase in the last few games, and for good reason — his 9.1 yards per reception is one of the best among running backs, and higher than that of Sproles. His status is uncertain due to injury, but he’s incredibly elusive as a runner and on screens, showing an exceptional ability to read his blocks and fall forward for extra yards. Given Kuechly’s ability to quickly diagnose and react to the play, this should be an interesting matchup to watch as the Panther has the potential to blow up the screen for a significant loss.
Bushrod vs. Hardy
Though the Saints will likely keep the ball on the ground more than normal in the last game of the season, don’t expect them to abandon the pass with Brees gunning to keep his streak of completing 20 or more passes alive. Whether in the run or pass game, Jermon Bushrod will have his hands full on the outside with Panthers DE Greg Hardy, assuming he plays after being held out of practice this week for non-injury related reasons. The Saints LT rebounded nicely after a rough start to the season, but hasn’t been particularly sharp in his last three outings. Against Dallas in Week 16, he allowed three pressures but was otherwise solid in pass protection. In the run game however, Bushrod was manhandled by the combination of Victor Butler and Jason Hatcher, particularly late in the fourth quarter as New Orleans attempted to run out the clock and preserve its lead.
Hardy, on the other hand, has been one of the best and most complete defensive ends in the league this season, with a definite argument as a Pro Bowl snub. He ranks sixth for his Pass Rush Productivity rating, as well as seventh for his Run Stop Percentage among all 4-3 DEs having played at least 25% of their team’s snaps. The Panther has improved as the season has progressed. He’s graded above +1.5 for his overall play in his past three games, while producing at least three pressures in each, including his three-sack performance against San Diego in Week 15. Lining up at both DE and DT on the right side of the defense, Hardy will keep Bushrod on his toes the entire afternoon. In particular, look for the DE to test Bushrod to his inside, where the LT has shown vulnerability to bull and inside moves.
Saints’ Pass Defense
After the performance Dez Bryant put on against the New Orleans pass defense a week ago, all eyes will be on Steve Smith this week. Though Smith doesn’t offer the same combination of size and athleticism as Bryant, he’s still a dangerous target who’s had huge games against the Saints in recent years. The player he’ll see in coverage most often will be Patrick Robinson, who was torched by Bryant in Week 16 for eight catches and two long touchdowns, though in his defense, he was nursing a groin injury. He looks to be healthy this week and he’ll shadow Smith to both sides of the field, though as the Panther receiver lines up 52% at LWR compared to 41% at RWR, Robinson will line up more frequently at RCB. With just three snaps in the slot in over 1,000 snaps on the season, he won’t follow Smith inside, however, that job will go to Elbert Mack.
With Jabari Greer likely out with a concussion, Mack will also get the job of defending the outside opposite Robinson, at least when the Panthers are in two-WR sets. There shouldn’t be much of a drop off from Greer, as opposing QBs have a rating of just 68.2 when targeting Mack, a number that leads all Saints CBs. When Carolina goes three-wide — something they do quite frequently — Johnny Patrick will man the outside. Patrick has struggled in limited snaps this season and is allowing a team-worst 2.14 yards per snap in coverage. Against Dallas, the second-year man also gave up two consecutive touchdowns in the final four minutes of the game. On the few occasions Patrick is matched up in direct coverage on Smith, look for the Panthers to take advantage.