3TFO: Saints @ Panthers, Week 16
Many predicted that New Orleans would be duking it out with Atlanta for rights to the NFC South, but it’s the Carolina Panthers who have ridden a winning streak into a tie for the division lead going into Week 16. Tied at 10-4, New Orleans would take the division with a win regardless of either team’s Week 17 results. To take the South, Carolina must beat the Saints, and then either win in Week 17 and/or see the Saints lose their final game. Whichever team wins will be guaranteed the two seed in the NFC, while either team could claim the top seed if the planets align and several major upsets occur. A win for either team would guarantee a spot in the postseason, although the loser of this Sunday’s contest still has a good chance at postseason play with a win in Week 17.
As for how they got here, it’s been much of the same for New Orleans. Drew Brees is once again running one of the best pass offenses in the league, with a defense that’s been just good enough, after the depths it saw in 2012. Not as explosive but just as exciting, the Panthers have one of the best defenses around, which held opponents to 16 or fewer points seven times during its eight game winning streak in the middle of the season. It’s complemented by a physical running game and enough proficiency through the air
The Panthers defense didn’t hold up all too well in their trip to the Superdome two weeks ago, where their young secondary was exposed, allowing four passing touchdowns. But it may be a different story in Charlotte this time around. Carolina’s only loss at home was to the Seahawks in a close contest to open the regular season. Here are some key areas that will determine who will get to spend Wild Card Weekend resting up for the Divisional Round.
A Clean Pocket
The battle to keep Brees upright during their last matchup two weeks ago was decisively won by the New Orleans’ offensive line. Pressured on just over one quarter of his dropbacks, Brees still managed to achieve a QB rating of 102.9 on the 12 occasions he did see pressure. No small part of this was Greg Hardy being kept in check by left tackle Charles Brown. What a difference a week can make though, as Brown was benched last game (-5.4 pass blocking) after being the latest victim of Robert Quinn’s reign of terror this year. With Brown’s visit to the bench looking more permanent, Hardy will face off against rookie third rounder Terron Armstead, who will be playing his first ever NFL snaps on offense this week should he get the start. Say what you want about Brown’s performance last week against Quinn, but Brown was a huge part of how Hardy was blanked as a pass rusher in their first game.
On the other side, it will be a couple of veterans lining up across from each other. Zach Strief and Charles Johnson have been with their teams since 2006 and 2007 respectively, so neither should be surprised what the other brings to the table. Johnson was held in relative check during their Week 14 matchup, but that was his first game back from a leg injury, and Johnson should be fully healthy by now. With a Pass Rushing Productivity of 12.6, Johnson is the fourth most productive 4-3 defensive end on a per snap basis, though Hardy isn’t far behind (10.8, ninth best).
Grounding the Saints’ Aerial Attack
Many teams have tried to slow down the New Orleans offense by taking away Jimmy Graham, one of the biggest mismatches in the game. And though Graham was held to just 58 yards in their last game, he did score twice. Graham found his way around the defense too, as he was targeted in the coverage of seven different defenders. More dangerous than Graham though was Marques Colston, who put up 125 yards and two touchdowns of his own while catching 75% of the balls tossed his way. Working primarily out of the slot, Colston has hauled in 76.5% of passes thrown at him when lined up in the slot (fourth of 55 slot receivers), and the five touchdowns he’s pulled in there are third most.
Both players spend plenty working the slot, so they’ll see a lot of Captain Munnerlyn in coverage. Munnerlyn has done well enough, not having allowed a touchdown when covering the slot receiver. And while quarterbacks throwing to slot receivers in Munnerlyn’s coverage have earned a mediocre QB rating of 81.9, they have thrown for a combined 449 yards, with more than half of them coming after the catch. Outside corners Drayton Florence and Melvin White didn’t fare particularly well in their trip to the Superdome either, combining to allow a 69% completion percentage and 60 YAC. This trio will have to step up to prevent their offense from getting behind and being forced to air it out early.
Ground and Pound
Putting up 30 or more points in six of their last ten games, Carolina’s offense hasn’t had much trouble scoring. The passing game has been efficient but hardly explosive — Cam Newton has completed just 13 passes thrown over 20 yards in the air, a figure bested by 22 quarterbacks, several of whom have missed multiple games.
Where the Panthers have excelled is when they are able to run the ball. Rated fifth for both their rushing and run blocking from our grading, the Panthers have used the back by committee approach with effectiveness. Jonathan Stewart has been nicked up most of the year, so it’s been the highly paid DeAngelo Williams who has taken the brunt of the workload. His 743 rushing yards may be nothing to write home about, but with 28 missed tackles, he’s broken more tackles than quite a few backs with more touches. And of course there’s Cam Newton, who has 507 rushing yards (third most among QBs) and six touchdowns (most among QBs). Add to that a more than adequate 5.3 yards per carry, and you have one of the top two dual threat quarterbacks in the NFL.
Defending this dynamic running attack must be a complete team effort, and there’s no better place to start than with disruptive but disciplined linemen in the trenches. Brodrick Bunkley should see an increased workload against Carolina’s run heavy sets, and he’s comfortably near the top of the board in Run Stop Percentage (12th of 76 defensive tackles). Despite not offering much as a pass rusher, fellow lineman Akiem Hicks has been excellent against the run, recording 33 stops in run defense, more than every 3-4 DE not named J.J. Watt. Even the Saints’ best pass rusher in second year man Cameron Jordan has held up well at the point of attack, though his tackle numbers may not support it. Perhaps more important than hitting home will be containing Newton and limiting lanes for him to shoot into the back seven, something he’s all too often burned teams with.