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John DeShazier: Saints top performers vs. Panthers

Tim Hightower had impressive game

OFFENSE: Give Tim Hightowerthis – the running back always is prepared to carry a heavy workload. And he carried one against the Panthers on a night when the offense was slow to find a groove, and his running mate (Mark Ingram) was forced to leave the game due to the concussion protocol about midway through the third quarter. Hightower ran for 69 yards on 12 carries and caught eight passes for 57 yards, and almost all of it came in the second half after Ingram's exit. In the final quarter-and-a-half, he ran nine times for 59 yards and caught six passes for 45 yards, accounting for 15 touches on the Saints' 38 second-half plays. The Saints scored 17 fourth-quarter points, but Hightower was key in allowing the offense to remain somewhat balanced after Carolina took a 23-3 lead, and he was a productive outlet for quarterback Drew Breesin the passing game by effectively executing screen passes and dump-off throws. Hightower remains a pro's pro and continues to be a player who can be counted on. He almost helped the Saints overcome a plethora of errors (a lost fumble and interception by Brees, and two errors in the kicking game).

DEFENSE: There were a handful of standout players for a unit that keeps getting better and better. It allowed just 223 yards on Thursday night, sacked Carolina quarterback Cam Newtontwice and hurried him another seven times, en route to forcing Newton into a pedestrian night – 14-for-33 for 192 yards and a touchdown. Linebacker Dannell Ellerbewas in the middle of the harassment. The four tackles with which he was credited, along with a sack, two hurries and a tackle for loss, don't do justice to his disruptiveness. It's performances like the one he had against the Panthers that explain why the Saints patiently awaited his recovery from a quadriceps injury; Ellerbe seems capable of handling every duty that is assigned to a linebacker. When he's on the field, you know it – and so does the opposing offense.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Once again, this one has to go to punter Thomas Morstead, who seems to be the only consistent positive with this unit. Morstead again did his job – three punts for a 47-yard gross average, and 43.7-yard net. Carolina's dangerous Ted Ginn Jr.returned two punts for 10 yards. But, frankly, the fact that Morstead continues to be the special teams honoree speaks to the inconsistency of the rest of the group; specifically, the field-goal unit (another attempt blocked, the second time that has happened this season) and the return unit (Marcus Murphywas active for the first time since Week 3, and muffed a kickoff out of bounds at the 1-yard line). Those kinds of mistakes, coupled with a pair of turnovers on offense, make it difficult for the Saints to be successful, and almost impossible to win on the road.

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