This will be one of the easier Key Ingredients of the season, so let's get to it for Sunday's New Orleans Saints game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
1. TREASURE THE BALL: NFL teams that commit five turnovers in a game don't win many games. That may not be a 100 percent guarantee, but the number of times in NFL history that a team has been able to overcome five turnovers and win probably can be counted on fingers and toes. Quarterback Jameis Winston not only threw three interceptions, but he also was sacked six times. Neither of those numbers is acceptable, especially the former. His No. 1 job is ball security and if Winston cleans up his play, the offense should follow. Interceptions weren't an issue in his first eight starts with the Saints (he totaled three in those games), so getting back to low numbers in that category is a reasonable assumption.
2. AK IS BACK: It should help Winston and the offense that running back Alvin Kamara is back after missing last week's game with a rib injury. Even with receivers Michael Thomas, Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave in the huddle, Kamara's presence on the field adds a dynamic that must be accounted for and allows for more freedom of movement on offense. He needs to get his touches – 15 to 20 traditionally has been a good number – and if he's in that range, the Saints' offense usually operates smoothly. New Orleans missed the threat he poses against Tampa Bay, so look for him to get some early touches to help get himself and the offense in rhythm.
3. EARLY MIKE: If it seems like stressing the use of offensive weapons is a theme, well, yep. Thomas needs the ball early, too, and somewhat often. He's just too much of a factor to not have touches that help get the offense in rhythm. He's one of the rare players who routinely makes contested catches, so if a throw has to be somewhat forced or zipped into a tight window, he's the guy who's worth the risk. Thomas already has three touchdown receptions in the first two games (11 catches for 122 yards overall), and his presence alone helps open up the field (Winston's deep attempts for Olave against Tampa Bay were due, in part, to the fact that Olave drew favorable coverage with Thomas on the field). This offense simply has too many weapons to have not been much of a factor in seven of the eight quarters played so far this season, and Thomas is too good to be silent for entire halves of games.
4. SPEED HIM UP: Is this the week that the defense piles up a sack total? Maybe, maybe not. Even though Carolina quarterback Baker Mayfield has been sacked six times in the first two games, he's more mobile than last week's target (Tom Brady) and if he won't win a game with his legs, he'll at least extend plays and allow receivers more time. But, remember, it's not all about stacking sacks. Hurries and quarterback hits can do the job just as nicely; it's about disrupting his timing and keeping him in the pocket, and the Saints are capable of doing both. The sacks are a nice added bonus, and defensive ends Marcus Davenport and Cameron Jordan will be looking to get into the sack column against the Packers. But, again, winning reps and disrupting timing will do because that also can lead to turnovers. The Saints got back to being the defense they expect against the Buccaneers (260 yards, 12 of 17 third-down stops and 13 points allowed are plenty good enough to win an NFL game), so they'll hope to extend that into this week. Also, remember that the secondary also was stellar against Tampa Bay. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore can't let down against a receiving corps that doesn't include Mike Evans, and the adjustments made on defense to combat Tampa Bay's early success were outstanding.
5. SWEET TASTE: This trip will take the Saints from Charlotte to London. It's not a must-win game – Game 3 of a 17-game regular season can't possibly be listed as a must-win in any reality-based scenario. But a long trip that comes on the heels of a win feels better, physically and psychologically. And the last time New Orleans was in Charlotte, the Panthers handed it to a Saints team that was missing about half the coaching staff due to Covid protocols, and a few players due to injuries. Both teams are different this season, but the mission is the same – get a win against a division opponent and make the trip to London feel a lot shorter and more pleasant.