ReFo: Panthers @ Saints, Week 14
It was the battle for the NFC South, only it turned out to be a massacre as the slow starting New Orleans Saints heated up to overwhelm a Carolina Panthers outfit that had no answer to the pressure off the Rob Ryan defense, and precision of the Drew Brees led offense.
While losing to a divisional opponent is always bitterly disappointing, it’s important Panthers fans remember that a couple of months ago this was a team heading nowhere. Now they look good for the playoffs and will surely be better for attempting to fix the holes the Saints so brutally exposed. As for New Orleans this was a welcome tonic after they were man handled last week in Seattle and was the perfect response to those who doubted if they had the stomach for the fight.
As ever the game was characterized by some interesting performances.
Panthers – Three Performances of Note
There’s been talk of Cam Newton (0.0) being an MVP candidate. Well this game firmly (and rightly) ended those talks as a national audience got a glimpse of the player he still remains. Equal bits frustrating as he is brilliant, he remains an adequate passer whose flaws are often masked by the plays he can make with his legs. When he’s limited as a runner he often looks ponderous with the football and slows the kind of pocket presence that is bound to frustrate his linemen. The antidote to edge pressure is to step up and let your linemen push past the line of scrimmage, especially when you’re dropping back 10 yards from the snap of the ball. But Newton still hasn’t figured this out, and while on one sack he can be forgiven for doing so with a blitz coming up the gut, there really is no excuse for taking sacks that cost the team double digit yardage such as the one with 6.02 left in the game.
A winning streak can certainly mask wins but the hope is a loss can redouble efforts to work out kinks.
Mixed Day For Kuechly
One of the more polarizing figures this year has been Luke Kuechly (+1.9). There’s certainly a lot to like, but as the this game showed there’s aspects of his game that will let him down. Firstly the good, and his work in the run game where he can really let his instincts take over. Any hesitation in a linemen getting to the second level and he’s too quick and too reactive to allow himself to be slowed down, as evidenced by how he picked up a tackle for no gain with 12 minutes to go in the game.
Now the bad and in this one it was chiefly in coverage (although even then he made enough plays to earn a positive grade). The problem for him was when he was marginally out of place are a little late to recognize what was going on the Saints punished. Three times they attacked his zone in coverage to pick up touchdowns (though one of them was wiped off the board for an offensive holding penalty) as the sophomore was guilty of drifting out of his zone (the first Marques Colston TD) and then being caught unaware on a crossing route (the first Jimmy Graham touchdown).
Line Holds Up
It may seem odd that on a game where their quarterback faced pressure on 17-of-42 dropbacks that a line performed well, but for the most part that was the case here. The obvious exception to the rule was Byron Bell (-5.0 pass blocking) who would be pinged for three sacks, a hit and four hurries but outside of that the team stood up. The other four starters allowed just five hurries (with three of those from Nate Chandler), with it just serving to show the impact a quarterback and good coverage can have on pass protection (Newton held onto the ball for an average of 3.18 seconds, over a tenth of a second up on his season average).
Saints – Three Performances of Note
It was rarely spectacular, but the ruthless efficiency of Drew Brees (+7.1) was ultimately what set the two teams apart. Afforded excellent protection (pressure on just 11-of-45 drop-backs) he did what his counterpart couldn’t, working quickly through his reads to find his open man and move the chains. All over the field he was incredibly accurate, going 12-of-17 on passes aimed over 10 yards in the air as he picked apart the Panthers when they were didn’t blitz (8.8 yards per attempt when not blitzed compared to 5.2 in the 17 occasions he was). As mentioned it was less about the quality of the throws as opposed to sheer quantity of consistently well placed balls, but the highlight had to be the second touchdown pass to Marques Colston that saw him fit the ball in a perfect spot between three defenders while also protecting his receiver from the kind of hit that could have jarred the ball loose. As bad as last week was, the performance of Brees this week is why everyone has to take the Saints seriously.
Hunting in Pairs
While the 12 combined quarterback disruptions Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette got may have flattered them slightly, there’s no denying that these two weapons make this defense tick. Utilizing a hybrid front and not scared of dropping to a nickel package against base packages, both men are put in positions to take advantage of their skillset, whether it be the speed of Galette or the explosive power of Jordan. Each man was able to take advantage of Cam Newton’s desire to escape outside the pocket with sacks, but they also added positive plays in the run game that has been a big part of this defense transforming itself. A combined +7.1 grade for the two leaves them at +43.2 for the year.
Secondary Stands Up
At times the aggressive defensive scheme can leave the Saints secondary a little exposed, but this wasn’t one of those occasions as throughout the group they delivered exactly as their coaches would have hoped. On the outside it starts with Keenan Lewis (+1.8) who was often tasked with shutting down Steve Smith, and though he surrendered a late touchdown it would take a foolish man to say he didn’t win this encounter.
Perhaps more important against a Panthers team that is better at attacking you up the gut, was the play of the safeties. It’s been a rookie year where Kenny Vaccaro (+1.6) has flashed some serious playmaking while making the kind of mistakes you associate with a first year player. This however was one of his more complete displays and represents his fifth grade in the green in his last six outings, showing he’s really turning a corner with his consistency. Again it’s his work in coverage that really impresses, especially his closing speed on receivers that really limits yards after the catch. With just three missed tackles all year, that’s a big part of it.
– Drew Brees had a 147.6 QB rating when throwing to Marques Colston
– Despite attempting five passes over 20 yards in the air, the Panthers completed just one.
– The Panthers starting defensive ends picked up just three quarterback disruptions between them (as well as one flag for offensive holding).
This one deserves to be shared by Marques Colston and Drew Brees.
Follow Khaled on Twitter: @PFF_Khaled