ReFo: Panthers @ Saints, Week 17
In a matchup with no playoff implications, this turned out to be a pretty exciting divisional game. The Panthers completed their season on a four game winning streak, completing a sweep of the Saints, their first since 2008, to finish at 7-9. But after starting 2-8, it was too little, too late for Carolina. They should be encouraged with the way they finished the season, though, and with a little improvement expect to be right in the thick of the playoff hunt next season.
New Orleans shouldn’t feel quite as good, as they ended the season with a loss and a historically porous defense. This was a year where they just couldn’t put it together under an interim coach. Getting Sean Payton back will help next season and should get the offense back to the level of previous years. The defense, however, will likely prove much more challenging to turn around.
Here are some key performances from a meaningless, but exciting divisional matchup.
Carolina – Three Performances of Note
That’s Why they Paid Him
Where was this all season from DeAngelo Williams? On 21 rushes – just the second time this season he’s received over 20 carries – Williams put on a spectacular display, breaking the 200-yard mark and scoring two touchdowns, a number that could’ve been higher had he received the red zone carries that went to Mike Tolbert. The display included a 65-yard run to set up the Panthers’ first touchdown of the day, while his 54-yard touchdown run at 8:54 in the third quarter jump-started the offense en route to 28 straight points. He and the Panthers were particularly successful running to the left of center, as both of Williams’ two long runs went through the left side B-gap, while he also added a 22 yard gain around the left edge. Credit the blocking of Greg Olsen, who did a nice job of sealing the edge all game and received a grade of +1.1 for his run blocking.
Though the Panthers allowed Brees to throw for 396 yards, they received a strong performance in coverage from Captain Munnerlyn (+0.7). The diminutive cornerback, playing all but one defensive snap and lining up all over the field, was targeted 12 times in coverage but defensed a pair of passes and allowed just five receptions for 49 yards and a long gain of 17. On the season, Munnerlyn allowed 0.94 yards per snap in coverage, a mark that ranked ninth among qualifying CBs.
Unfortunately, not all Carolina defenders had the same success. While Brees had a QB rating of 53.8 when targeting Munnerlyn, he and the Saints torched safety D.J. Campbell for 94 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly were each beaten several times in coverage. Davis in particular struggled, allowing 8-of-9 passes thrown into his coverage to be completed, allowing Brees a perfect passer rating on those throws. Even Munnerlyn had his faults on the day, as he picked up a pair of flags for illegal contact and pass interference.
A Gross Display
Had the Panthers had nearly any quarterback other than the ultra-mobile Cam Newton at the helm on Sunday, the results could have been much different; because as good as their run blocking was, their efforts in pass protection were awful. The Panthers allowed pressure on 17 of Newton’s 36 dropbacks, with most of the pressure coming from their tackles. RT Byron Bell (-1.7) was beaten for five pressures on the day, but on the opposite side, Jordan Gross (-4.7) was even worse, allowing six hurries and two hits on his QB. Gross especially struggled with the speed of OLB/DE Martez Wilson on the outside, who played just 11 snaps, but beat the Panther’s LT for three third-down pressures.
New Orleans – Three Performances of Note
With the Saints owning our two lowest-graded safeties this season, it’s been nice to see some production on the back end in the last few weeks in the form of Isa Abdul-Quddus. Forced into full time action with Malcolm Jenkins on IR, Quddus has responded extremely well in the last three games starting and playing 100% of defensive snaps. His performance against the Panthers marked the third time in four games – and his fourth on the season – that he’s graded at or above +1.9 in coverage, a mark neither Jenkins nor Roman Harper reached even once in a combined 29 games and over 2000 defensive snaps. On Sunday, Quddus allowed just one completion for 11 yards in five Newton throws in his direction, with three pass defenses. Even in his limited dime safety role, he’s shown more instinct and range in coverage than we’ve seen in multiple seasons from Jenkins and Harper, who, despite both being defensive captains, will (or at least should) be two players the team puts under the microscope this offseason.
Of course, we can’t praise Quddus for his play in coverage without also criticizing the safety for his poor play in run support, which was a big factor in the Panthers’ success on the ground. Led by two missed tackles and a number of over pursuits, he notched a -3.6 grade against the run as part of a defense that missed a combined eight tackles in the game. When a defense is as fundamentally bad as the Saints have been in failing to simply wrap up and tackle, it’s not surprising that they turned in some historically bad statistics.
While the Panthers may have gashed the Saints on the ground, it wasn’t from lack of production on the part of Brodrick Bunkley. Logging a high for snaps (45, 58.4%) since Week 1, Bunkley (+3.0 run defense) played his best game – perhaps non-coincidentally – since that first game of the season. The tackle had a prototypical performance for a run-stuffing interior lineman, as he was stout at the point of attack, often occupying multiple blockers, yet able to shed well and wrap up the ball carrier; his five stops led the team as he spent close to equal time at DRT and DLT, with his most success coming against Panthers RG Garry Williams.
On passing plays, though, you can see why he’s played sparingly this season – only 34% of defensive snaps – and hasn’t been a great fit on a team like the Saints. With so many other high-usage linemen incapable of generating consistent pressure, it’s difficult to justify giving more snaps to a player from whom they’re not getting much in terms of pass rush. He did come up with a first quarter sack, impressive against the mobile Newton, but it came after Cam Jordan initially pressured the QB. On other plays, however, you see him initially occupy two blockers, only to have one of them peel off and double one of the Saints’ other rushers, leaving Bunkley to get minimal one-on-one push.
After replacing the mammoth that is Carl Nicks, who also happens to be one of the best all-around guards in the league, you would think Ben Grubbs would have attracted more attention this season. That hasn’t been the case as he’s made a relatively smooth transition into one of the league’s better offensive lines. On Sunday, Grubbs (+3.7) played a balanced game, with just one pressure allowed in 46 snaps in pass protection and some solid blocks against the Carolina interior in the run game. It’s that balance – along with being seldom penalized – that helped him barely edge out teammate Jahri Evans in our guard ratings
Grubbs has been a bright spot in a disappointing season for the Saints. He may not be the road-grader that Nicks was, but is certainly a capable replacement; on a team that runs a diverse offense with frequent use of screens, his athleticism and ability to get to the second level has been essential.
-A week after grading at a season-high +6.1, Thomas Davis notched a season-low grade of -4.8 against the Saints.
-On the 19 drop backs on which he was not pressured, Cam Newton completed just 9-of-19 passes, with an interception.
-Reserve DT Tom Johnson had three hurries and one hit in just 21 pass rushes for the Saints.
PFF Game Ball
Another reminder of why DeAngello Williams received the sizable contract that he did. It’s unfortunate that we haven’t seen more games like this.