OFFENSE: It's really, really hard to nitpick 523 yards of offense, 8-for-16 on third down (one-for-one on fourth down), five touchdowns and 3-for-4 in the red zone. That's high, high efficiency and there isn't a single Sunday, Monday or Thursday that a team wouldn't take that kind of production. Drew Brees(34 for 49 for 465 yards and four touchdowns, with an interception) was a surgeon, completing passes to 10 targets, the most potent being Brandin Cooks(seven catches for 173 yards, including an 87-yard touchdown catch and a 49-yarder that set up a touchdown). The game-winning drive for a field goal was perfection, an 11-play, 41-yard march that lasted 2:47 and left just 11 seconds in regulation. Much, much to like from the unit against Carolina. But…the run game was stymied (21 carries for 63 yards and a touchdown), and the Saints always want to be more balanced than that. The rushing touchdown was a nice surprise (tight end Coby Fleeneron a jet sweep) that pretty much stunned everyone inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, but there was some unevenness to the showing. Of course, give Carolina its due because the Panthers don't allow opponents to have much of a ground game (94.8 yards allowed, and 3.4 yards per carry, entering Sunday). But it was more of an imbalance than the Saints would like to have, and it'll be one of those areas that coaches and players will seek to "clean up," even in victory.
DEFENSE: The first half was a vision of beauty for the Saints defense – three punts forced on Carolina's first three possessions and an end zone interception (by cornerback Sterling Moore) to snuff out the fourth, before the Panthers posted a field goal and touchdown on their final two drives of the half. Pressure was consistent (defensive end Kasim Edebali had a sack on the first drive, and defensive end Darryl Tappshared one with defensive tackle Nick Fairley on Carolina's third drive), and coverage was tight. The Saints only allowed 10 points in the first half and minimized the chunk gains. But Carolina, which led the league in scoring last season, wasn't dissuaded. The Panthers scored 21 points in the fourth quarter, reminiscent of Oakland's 22-fourth-quarter points in the season opener. The goal, of course, is for the Saints to put together a solid four quarters of defense, as they did against the Giants. Five touchdowns allowed is a ton. Even though New Orleans was fine on third down (allowed three conversions in 11 attempts) and held its own against the run (27 carries for 103 yards and three touchdowns for Carolina, with a big chunk coming on Jonathan Stewart's26-yard run), having a 21-point lead evolve into a shootout isn't ideal by anyone's stretch of the imagination. Safety Kenny Vaccaro'sactivity was encouraging, and linebacker Craig Robertson(12 tackles, a quarterback hurry and a fumble recovery) has been a huge free agent signing.
SPECIAL TEAMS: If Sunday wasn't the best special team day for the Saints this season, it should be close. Wil Lutz'sfailed 53-yard field-goal attempt was ugly. Let's get that out of the way. But he redeemed himself in the best was possible, with a game-winning 52-yarder that sailed through the uprights with 11 seconds left. When Coach Sean Paytonsaid he likes the rookie's makeup, that's the kind of bounce-back and come-through that Payton is talking about. Lutz also was good on kickoffs; Carolina's Ted Ginn Jr.returned three kickoffs for 66 yards, but also saw Lutz produce five touchbacks. Thomas Morsteadwas at least as effective, if not more, when it came to punting to Ginn. Morstead had four punts for a gross average of 52.8 yards, and a net of 44.8; Ginn had four returns for 32 yards. Part of the reason the speedster couldn't shake loose was rookie receiver Jake Lampman(three tackles) and rookie running back Daniel Lasco(two tackles), who exhibited the kind of want-to that you like to see on special teams. Oh, and rookie receiver Tommylee Lewissprinkled in a bit of magic, too, courtesy of a 59-yard punt return that set up a 29-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter. Not much was produced via kickoff returns (two for 29 yards), but that doesn't diminish the fact that Saints had some nice contributions from special teams against the Panthers.