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John DeShazier: Greg Olsen part of Carolina's offensive puzzle Saints have to solve

Tight end had eight catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns in last meeting

Every defense knows what the problem is when facing Carolina's passing game. Solving it, however, remains elusive.

Carolina tight end Greg Olsen is a marked man entering every game, just as he was when the New Orleans Saints played Carolina in Week 3, and again will be when New Orleans (4-7) takes on the Panthers (11-0) on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

If there was solace to be taken from his performance against the Saints at Bank of America Stadium – eight catches for a career-high 134 yards and two touchdowns, including 52- and 27-yard receptions – it was that New Orleans' defense isn't alone this season in having had trouble dealing with the 2014 Pro Bowler.

Olsen leads the Panthers with 53 catches for 788 yards and six touchdowns, and no teammate really is close to matching his numbers. He has 23 more catches, 343 more yards and two more touchdowns than Carolina's second-best in those respective categories.

He particularly was prickly for the Saints in the red zone; both touchdown catches covered 11 yards in the 27-22 victory, a game the Panthers didn't seal until Josh Norman's end zone interception of Luke McCown's pass attempt for Brandin Cooks with 1:09 left.

"What stood out to me was Olsen in the red area, and they hit some shot plays," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "We've got to look closely and improve our red zone defense in a game like this.

"In the last five times these two teams have played, four of those five times the winner has won the red zone battle, and not had to settle for a field goal but been able to score touchdowns. They're doing a real fine job in the red area offensively. That's one of the things that we have to look closely at."

Looking closely at that means looking closely at Olsen, the main target of Carolina quarterback Cam Newton and a significant problem for every Panthers opponent.

He caught seven passes for 131 yards and against Seattle, including the game-winning, 26-yard touchdown pass with 32 seconds left in a 27-23 win over the Seahawks. He had four catches for 66 yards and a touchdown against Green Bay, and six for 79 yards and a score against Indianapolis.

Olsen is the second-most productive tight end in the league, ranking behind New England's Rob Gronkowski (57 catches, 931 yards and nine touchdowns).

"Greg means a lot, because he's so trustworthy at any time of the game," Newton said. "He just steps up to the plate and does his job.

"We want to attack the defense as best we can and if those guys possess opportunities for us to attack them downfield, we want to do that."

Panthers Coach Ron Rivera said the philosophy is a simple one.

"Greg is one of those route-running tight ends that you have to pay attention to," Rivera said. "If teams are going to play single high or some sort of quarters coverage, it's one of those things where the safety does have to pay attention to where he is. He can't favor way too much to the receiver's side, he always has to be aware of Greg's ability to get vertical.

"So it forces the safeties to play honestly. If they do cheat one way or the other and Cam sees it, he can go opposite of where the safety is leaning."

Clearly, the direction in which Newton leans is toward Olsen when Carolina throws. The Saints will counter with several defenders, one of whom could be safety Kenny Vaccaro.

"He's a good player," Vaccaro said. "I think he's an all-around tight end. I think his blocking has gotten better. He can run a lot of routes and variations of routes from the tight end position.

"He's got good speed – his whole career, he has done a great job with that. He's a good player."

Second gallery of photos from the New Orleans Saints vs Carolina Panthers game at Bank of America Stadium. Photos by Michael C. Hebert (New Orleans Saints photos)

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