This appears to be a matchup of teams heading in opposite directions; the New Orleans Saints are looking to win their second straight game, and the Carolina Panthers are on a three-game losing streak entering the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday. Here are a few ways in which the Saints can keep trending in the right direction, and assist in continuing Carolina's slide:
- Last season, opponents threw against Carolina mostly because they were trailing, and because the Panthers didn't allow much on the ground and even then, success was nowhere near a guarantee. This year, teams are throwing because the Panthers – minus All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman– still are solid against the run, but appear to be noticeably weaker against the pass. To wit, last year the Panthers had more interceptions (24) than touchdown passes allowed (21), to go along with 44 sacks and a completion percentage allowed of 60. This year, they've allowed nine touchdown passes against five interceptions, and they're on pace for 33 sacks while opponents complete 63.1 percent of their passes. Add to that dip the fact that the Saints have been nothing short of prolific through the air in their previous two home games (Drew Breeshas completed 67 percent of his passes for 799 yards and seven touchdowns, with an interception, in two home games), and it seems reasonable that Brees, Drew Brees, Willie Snead, Michael Thomasand Coby Fleenerwill look for matchups to exploit.
- Another week, another challenge for the secondary. Carolina has receiver Kelvin Benjamin(6 feet 5, 245 pounds) back this season; he missed last year with a torn ACL after totaling 1,008 receiving yards as a rookie in 2014. He's a huge red zone target for Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, whom the Saints expect to play this week (Newton missed the last game while in the league's concussion protocol). But more of a thorn for the Saints will be Carolina tight end Greg Olsen, who has tormented the league the last few years (1,008 receiving yards and six touchdowns in '14, and 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns last year) and shows no signs of slowing (a team-leading 33 catches for 516 yards and two touchdowns through five games this year). Olsen had huge days against the Saints in two games last year (17 catches for 263 yards and two scores) and is a big security blanket for Newton. Keeping Olsen under control will be a difficult task, but one that'll significantly increase New Orleans' chances of winning.
- This one is easier said than done: Hit Newton. The big quarterback can't be allowed to be comfortable and opponents have been able to get to him this season (he has been sacked 13 times in less than four full games, and that doesn't take into account the hits that he takes on scrambles, designed runs and when he is pressured). A comfortable, in-his-zone Newton is a bad thing for the Saints. You never wish injury on an opponent, but the Saints need to make Newton as uncomfortable as possible.
- Run defense showed up big for the Saints in San Diego (38 yards allowed on 21 carries against the Chargers). But the Panthers aren't the Chargers. Carolina runs for 124.6 yards per game, sixth-most in the league. Newton leads the way but, perhaps, he won't be as much of a factor given that he's coming off a concussion. Regardless of whether he is or isn't a vital part, the spotlight will be on linebackers Craig Robertsonand James Laurinaitis, safeties Kenny Vaccaroand Vonn Bell and others to be ready.
- And speaking of run games, it appears for New Orleans that Josh Hillis ready to return from his injury. The significance is that Hill is the team's best blocking tight end, and he offers the threat of being a receiver, too. There might not be as much of a need for the Saints to use the "heavy" tight end formation (offensive lineman Senio Kelemeteas the eligible receiver, perhaps) with Hill back, so the team receives the benefit of having him as a receiving threat as well as an edge blocker. Perhaps that will help add some punch to the run game.