The early bye week possibly came at a fortuitous time for the New Orleans Saints.
Several bodies needed the rest, recovery and rehabilitation, and the Saints (3-2) needed to iron out a few wrinkles before entering their season-ending 11-game marathon, beginning with Sunday's game against Carolina (3-3) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
There should be a quick indication in the game of how much the Saints improved and shored up during the break. The Panthers likely will be a stern test.
Here are a few keys to the game:
- GROUNDED: The Saints aren't exactly ground-and-pounders when it comes to the running game, but that doesn't mean they can't do it. Against the Lions, in a 35-29 win, New Orleans had 42 attempts for 164 rushing yards and three touchdowns, significantly above the team's season averages of 28 attempts and 115 rushing yards per game. The reason to mention this is because the Panthers allow 121.7 yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry. Alvin Kamara (281 yards, 4.6 per carry) and Latavius Murray (218 and 4.2) could have busy days for the Saints as runners.
- STACKED BOX: Of course, there also is the possibility that Carolina could choose to stack the box and dare the Saints to move the ball through the air. That especially might be the case with receiver Michael Thomas (ankle/hamstring) missing his fifth consecutive game. And Emmanuel Sanders, who'd begun to emerge in Thomas' absence with 18 catches for 215 yards in the last two games, also will be out; he's on the reserve/Covid-19 list. Add in this fact, too: the Panthers have been pretty good against the pass - 219 yards per game allowed (seventh fewest in the league), with 15 completions allowed of 20-plus yards and one of 40-plus yards. For the Saints' now-depleted receiving corps, Tre'Quan Smith has shown flashes (16 catches for 194 yards and two touchdowns this season) and free agent rookie Marquez Callaway looks more and more like a gem. Add in Kamara (38 catches, 395 yards, three touchdowns) and tight end Jared Cook, and the Saints should have plenty available to attack through the air. Remember this, too: The last time a Panthers team dared Drew Brees to beat them – last season, in New Orleans – Brees completed 30 of 39 passes for 311 yards and three touchdowns, with an interception.
- TALK THE TALK: Communication issues have dogged the Saints' secondary so far this season. It's not just that New Orleans leads the league in pass interference penalties (11), it's that the Saints have watched an alarming number or receivers running no-defender-within-five-yards free in the secondary. And Carolina has a quarterback, former Saint Teddy Bridgewater, who may know a thing or two about players' tendencies in the defensive backfield. Having Jackrabbit Jenkins return at cornerback should be a boost, but a huge cure is for New Orleans to be on one accord on the back end. If one player doesn't know what coverage the defense is in on a play, it often has been disastrous. Fifteen passing touchdowns allowed, and five completions of 40-plus yards, pretty much negates the 13 sacks collected and the 237 passing yards per game allowed. New Orleans needs to find a rhythm in its communication, so that one bad play doesn't erase several good ones.
- THREES ARE A GOOD THING: Another point of emphasis on defense is the red zone. To be kind, the Saints have not been effective. Opponents have scored touchdowns on 17 of 20 trips inside the Saints' 20-yard line. Life will be exponentially easier if New Orleans can tighten up and force a few more field goal attempts. It might not be a total stop, like a forced punt or turnover, but allowing field goals is better than giving up touchdowns every day of the week, and twice on game days.
- RIDE THE CROWD: The crowd number (3,000) and noise level obviously won't be what the Saints are accustomed to having inside a sold-out Superdome. But it'll be better than anything they've had so far this season, with the first three home games having been played in front of a combined total of 1,500 fans. The fans in attendance will be noticeable. New Orleans should ride whatever emotional lift they can provide.
TONY'S CHACHERE'S KEY INGREDIENT TO BECOME A TAILGATE MVP:
Tony Chachere's Creole Butter Smoked Sausage Kolaches