Absolutely, the New Orleans Saints and Coach Dennis Allen didn't exaggerate when they said there were many areas to clean up after the regular-season opener, a 16-15 win over Tennessee in the Caesars Superdome.
But it's ALWAYS better to do the improving in the wake of a victory, because it's always nice to win when you didn't play your best. And the Saints didn't do that, though there were some areas that obviously were cleaner than others.
Entering their Monday night game against Carolina at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., here are a few areas that can be addressed to make the path to victory a bit smoother:
1. GROUND AND POUND: The fact that the Saints were unable to run the ball effectively (27 carries for 69 yards) against the Titans was no shock; Tennessee led the league in run defense last season, allowing 76.9 rushing yards per game, and the Titans boast a formidable front. But for New Orleans to be the offense it aspires to be, it’s going have to run it better. The Panthers allowed 130 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries against Atlanta in the season opener, so there may be more room to maneuver for Jamaal Williams (18 carries, 45 yards) in this one. Allen said the Saints appeared to be a block or two away from popping a couple of long runs, and this would be a good time – on the road, against a division opponent – to have that balance on offense.
2. PROTECT THE CARR: The first half passing game against Tennessee was nowhere near peak efficiency, and the lack of pass protection played a huge role in that. Quarterback Derek Carr was sacked four times and threw an interception in the first two quarters, and the Titans took advantage of left tackle Trevor Penning, who made his second NFL start. The Panthers are no less formidable on the defensive line. The Saints gave Penning a bit more help in the second half, and Carr wasn't sacked while completing 10 of 13 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown. Carolina brings a 3-4 defensive front, but linebacker Brian Burns and defensive end Derrick Brown can, and will, wreak havoc if not contained. Helping Penning early wouldn't be a bad thing, especially on the road. Carr showed what he's capable of doing when he has time. Also, Panthers standout cornerback Jaycee Horn is out with a hamstring injury, and that should benefit Saints receivers Michael Thomas, Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed.
3. TIGHTEN UP: Defensively, New Orleans wasn't happy about surrendering 4.7 yards per carry on 22 attempts by Tennessee. Carolina ran for 154 yards on 32 carries against Atlanta and while the Panthers didn't do much else offensively, they did that very well. Miles Sanders led the way with 72 yards on 18 carries, Chuba Hubbard chipped in 60 on nine carries and the Panthers showed they have a nice 1-2 punch on the ground. The Saints can't allow that to happen, especially given that Carolina has a rookie quarterback (Bryce Young) and the best way to keep him settled is to have a great running game. Linebacker Demario Davis had 10 tackles against Tennessee in the season opener; more, he was a physically dominating force once he arrived at the point of attack. Allen said the run fits have to be better on defense, and Davis and fellow linebackers Pete Werner and Zack Baun may factor prominently.
4. SHAKE THE ROOK: Young (20 of 38 for 146 yards, with a touchdown, two interceptions and two sacks) certainly did not play his best against the Falcons. The Saints need to keep it that way, and it won't help Young that left guard Brady Christensen was placed on injured reserve and receiver D.J. Chark has been limited by a hamstring injury. Four Saints (defensive ends Carl Granderson and Cameron Jordan, defensive tackle Bryan Bresee and Werner) combined for three sacks against Tennessee and they'll continue to put the pressure on Young. He's mobile, but he's more likely to scramble to buy time to throw than he is to run. New Orleans’ secondary was sterling against the Titans; Marshon Lattimore (one interception, four pass breakups) was at the top of his game and his teammates were no less effective. Sticky coverage is a must against the rookie, who's likely to make a performance jump from his first game to the second.
5. BE SOLID, IF NOT SPECIAL: Special teams also had a fantastic game in the opener; Baun blocked a punt, Blake Grupe was successful on three field goals and his lone extra point attempt and Lou Hedley averaged 40.8 net yards on five punts. Plus, the cover teams were outstanding. Early-season games are the ones in which special teams play often have a huge effect, so don't be surprised to see the Saints go after a punt. More likely, though, is that Grupe and Hedley need to remain effective outdoors, and the punt and kick coverage again must be solid. Maybe Shaheed can flip the field with a punt or kick return.