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John DeShazier's key ingredients to a Saints victory presented by Papa John's

Winning third down will be crucial

Photos of the Saints defense against the Panthers on Sunday, October 16, 2016.

A gut-wrenching loss preceded a short week for the New Orleans Saints. They'll have to bounce back quickly in order to reach .500 again. Here are a few ways for them to do so:

  1. Could physical fatigue set in for the Saints defense against the Panthers? It's a concern worth monitoring, considering the Saints defense lined up for 83 snaps against Denver on Sunday (the Broncos had possession for 39:22, almost twice as long as New Orleans' 20:38), and had three less days than normal of recovery time. One way to combat that possibility is to get off the field on third down; Denver converted 11 of 19 attempts against New Orleans. So even though the Saints had six sacks – one each by defensive end Cam Jordan, defensive tackles Nick Fairleyand Sheldon Rankins, safety Kenny Vaccaroand linebackers Craig Robertsonand Dannell Ellerbe– and two interceptions (Vaccaro and cornerback Sterling Moore), the defense still spent a lot of time and snaps on the field. However, it only allowed 337 yards and two touchdowns. And working in its favor is this: in the previous three games, the Saints averaged 54 defensive snaps per game and maxed out at 27:22 on the field. Carolina has the ability to hog the ball on offense, so getting off the field on third down will be crucial for the Saints on the road.
  1. Another way for the defense to stay off the field is for the offense to keep possession of the ball. The Saints were fantastic in that area, too, for the three games before playing Denver. New Orleans, the league's best third-down conversion team (52.4 percent), was successful four times in nine attempts (44 percent) against Denver. Carolina, led by linebackers Luke Kuechlyand Thomas Davis, only allows a 37.3 percent conversion rate on third down, seventh-best in the league. But even though the Panthers have improved of late, Drew Breesand the Saints offense shredded the Panther defense in the first meeting this season, to the tune of 465 passing yards (34 completions in 49 attempts) and four touchdowns by Brees, and seven catches for 173 yards (including an 87-yard touchdown) by Drew Brees. The Saints were 8 of 16 on third down in that game; percentage-wise, that's obviously the neighborhood they want to be in Thursday night.
  1. How important is it for the Saints to hang on to the football? In their five losses, they're minus-4 in turnover ratio (nine giveaways, five takeaways). In the four wins, they're plus-6. For as much hang-wringing as there was over the fact that a blocked point-after touchdown attempt was returned for a two-point conversion by Denver in the Broncos' 25-23 victory on Sunday, four giveaways (two interceptions, two lost fumbles) canceled out two takeaways (two interceptions) and helped keep the Broncos close when it appeared the Saints had taken momentum and were looking to build on a seven-point lead in the third quarter. The Panthers haven't been the takeaway artists that they were last season – 12 takeaways this season, and minus-7 in turnovers, through nine games in 2016 compared to 39 takeaways, and plus-20 in turnovers, last season. Staying on the positive side of the turnover ratio always is crucial.
  1. The dual-threat ability of Carolina quarterback Cam Newtonpresents a unique challenge. He's good on designed runs, great on scrambles and locates receivers downfield after he's been flushed. Discipline remains a key for pass rushers; Newton has been harassed plenty this season (sacked 23 times, and a multitude of hits when he has been pressured and on designed runs). The cumulative effect may be taking a toll (he's on pace to post his fewest rushing yards since entering the NFL) so the more the Saints can get to him and remind him of their presence on defense, the better.
  1. New Orleans can't afford another special-teams bust. The miscues have been glaring – blocked field-goal attempt returned for touchdown against the Giants; fumbled punt return recovered and punched in for a touchdown by Atlanta; blocked PAT returned for two-point conversion against Denver. The common thread is that each of them helped contribute to a loss. The Saints need a clean one against Carolina. They don't have to be spectacular by forcing a turnover in the kicking game, but at minimum, they do have to eliminate their own mistakes.
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