There's no mystery where the Carolina Panthers offense is centered.
If running back Christian McCaffrey is in uniform – and he will be Sunday, when the New Orleans Saints (1-1) play the Panthers (0-2) at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. – then the Saints will formulate a plan to track his movements and attempt to minimize his impact.
But the Panthers will have a different starter at quarterback for the fifth consecutive season, and Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, becomes a piece of the puzzle New Orleans also has to be wary of.
"He's got moxie," said Saints co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen. "The guy loves to play football. He's very fiery, he's a good leader. It's going to be a good test, this is our first time against him. He can make some plays with his arm, but also he can get out, he escapes in the pocket. He's had a couple of nice runs this season already. So it'll be a good challenge.
"We've got to keep him contained. We can't let him run out of the back of the pocket. That's where he runs out and he'll make a play with his legs, or a guy will get open with too much time. We've got to do a really good job of pushing the interior of the pocket into his lap, where it makes it hard on the lanes for him to see through the middle of the field. I'm fired up to play him, because he is a really good player and he's done a lot of really good things."
Since being drafted by Cleveland in 2018, Mayfield has started 61 of the 62 games he has played and completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 14,505 yards and 94 touchdowns, with 57 interceptions and 140 sacks. He led the Browns to the playoffs in 2020 and in two games this season with the Panthers, Mayfield has completed 30 o 56 passes for 380 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception, and six sacks.
"We've got a couple of regular-season games to go off of, and there was a significant amount of preseason snaps that we were able to see (of Mayfield in Carolina's offense)," Saints Coach Dennis Allen said. "A little bit different, in that we've got a little bit more information. But yet, we've got to prepare for what we see on tape and prepare for the scheme and then be able to react to anything they may try to do differently.
"He's a guy that's got a lot of moxie. A guy that can really create some things with his feet. He's a guy that's got some athletic ability, they run some of the zone-read stuff with him, which makes it a challenge. Some of the RPO (run-pass option) game. Another athletic quarterback that creates some challenges with his feet, too.
"I think he is able to get the ball out, throw the ball with timing and rhythm and accuracy. And then I think he's also got the ability to extend the play and create some opportunities down the field with some off-schedule throws. He's a tough issue to deal with."
Mayfield isn't as much of a runner as was Atlanta's Marcus Mariota, whom the Saints faced in the season opener, and he won't be nearly as immobile as was Tampa Bay's Tom Brady, New Orleans' last opponent.
But of the three, and adding to the degree of difficulty, is the fact that he'll have the most potent backfield mate in McCaffrey, an All-Pro in 2019 who only has played in 12 games since that season. McCaffrey has 38 touchdowns in 60 career games.
"They have some explosive players, and they do well with the receivers, especially utilizing their back very well," Saints linebacker Pete Werner said. "They're an explosive team, but we've got to eliminate those explosive plays and kind of keep this quarterback contained.
"Our defense, if everybody is locked in their job, different quarterbacks show different tendencies and obviously this is a different one than last week. We've just got to keep him contained and execute in the second half."
"I think he's been able to utilize CMC (McCaffrey), as well as (receivers) Robbie (Anderson) and D.J. (Moore), to some potential," defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "We all know D.J. has some 'go' to him, and Robby is a deep threat. And of course CMC in any open field, if you utilize him correctly, I think almost every other quarterback that the Panthers have had can be effective."
INJURY UPDATE: Rookie defensive back Alontae Taylor (knee) has been ruled out for Sunday's game. Running back Alvin Kamara was listed as a limited participant Friday, but worked for the third consecutive day. Receiver Tre'Quan Smith was upgraded to full participation, while cornerback Paulson Adebo remained limited.