There isn't a definitive feel for how much a crowd of 3,000 will affect Sunday's game for the New Orleans Saints, but it's a couple of thousand more than previously have been allowed inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and the Saints will take it for their matchup against Carolina.
The franchise and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell reached an agreement Tuesday on a "phased and deliberate approach" to allowing fans to attend games this season. The regular-season opener was played without fans, and the second and third home dates were played in front of 750, consisting mainly of friend and family of players and team employees.
Season ticket holders will have access to 3,000 tickets Sunday. Barring any change in local health and safety guidelines, capacity possibly could increase to 6,000 for the Nov. 15 and Nov. 22 games against San Francisco and Atlanta, respectively, and then could escalate for 15,000 for the Dec. 20 and Dec. 25 games against Kansas City and Minnesota.
"It's good to see that both teams worked together and came up with a plan, not just for this game but for the upcoming schedule," Coach Sean Payton said Wednesday morning. "It's hard to gain an idea without really seeing each week. I think it's great that we'll have more and more fans there, safely I might add, and we'll kind of go from there."
The Saints (3-2) will be attempting to remain tied with Tampa Bay (4-2) in the loss column, and New Orleans already owns a victory over the Buccaneers in the head-to-head matchup. The Panthers (3-3) are a game behind in the loss column.
Sunday's noon kickoff will be the first of two noon kickoffs for the Saints this season; Nov. 22, against the Falcons, is the other one.
THOMAS RETURN: Payton said Sunday possibly will mark the return of receiver Michael Thomas, who has missed the previous four games. Thomas injured his ankle in the season opener against Tampa Bay, missed three games while rehabilitating the injury, and was ruled out of the last game, against the Chargers, as a disciplinary measure. Payton said the disciplinary phase ended, Thomas' health has improved and his availability for Sunday will be determined. "We'll see. I think he's feeling better."
TURN IT OVER: The Saints have forced five turnovers and committed four, down from last year's pace of 23 overall forced turnovers and a plus-15 turnover ratio. Payton wants to see improvement in that area. "We're plus-1 as a team, which puts you right in the middle of the pack," he said. "We've got our hands on a few and yet, I think overall, we can play better team defense. We have to. That starts with third down, that starts with red area. In those areas we're doing some things well, we've improved in some areas and yet, there's usually a combination. There's usually more QB pressure, more hurries lead to deflected passes, intercepted passes, forced fumbles. So hopefully, we can see that improve here in the next few weeks."