Photo by Michael DeMocker, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
The Saints look to close out their three-game road trip with a win Monday night against the Panthers in Charlotte. Since their road trip began against the Dallas Cowboys the week after Thanksgiving, the offense just hasn’t looked like the same kind of explosive unit it was earlier in the season when it hung 40 points on 5 different opponents. They’ve seen struggles moving the ball effectively through the air and on the ground. Despite the much improved defense giving them multiple opportunities, things just weren’t coming as naturally as they once were for New Orleans. Enter Taysom Hill who then charged through the line to block a punt in the third quarter of last weekend’s matchup with the Tampa Bay Bucs. All of a sudden, there was life in the Saints offense. Not the same kind of 37-yard touchdown on 4th and 6 up by 31 production, mind you, but still- life. The Saints will need to bring that momentum with them to Carolina in order to head home for the final two games of the season with a 12-2 record. Here are my 5 keys to leaving Carolina with another notch in the left column.
1. Brees must get his groove back
Drew Brees has thrown 4 interceptions this season, which is outstanding, but has thrown 3 in the last 3 games. All have come while he’s been under pressure. His completion percentage also drops from 79.6% when kept clean to 61.5% when pressured. The thing is, the offensive line hasn’t allowed a ton of it. From what you hear people talk about, you’d imagine that the interior offensive line has just been a group of turnstyles for the last three weeks, but the fact of the matter is that’s not the case. Even with Armstead (who likely DNP today) out over the most recent games, according to PFF, Brees hasn’t been pressured an inordinate amount at all. He faced 7 pressures against the Buccaneers, 11 against the Cowboys, and only 4 against the Falcons. For reference, in those games Jameis Winston was pressured 30 times, Dak Prescott 14 times, and Matt Ryan 21. Brees has simply been uber-suseceptible to pressure as of late, something we’ve seen in previous seasons as well. He improved in the second half of the Bucs game despite giving up a turnover on a sack-fumble, but went 14/16 for 100 yards and 1 touchdown pass. He also added one of his patented Brees leaps for a TD as well. The 100 yards passing feels underwhelming but he had help from his run game and defense getting him good field positioning. He was only 2 yards off of throwing for under 200 with an interception for only the 8th time since 2006. If he can get back on track against the Panthers he’ll improve to 6-5 when playing at Bank of America Stadium.
2. Maintain defensive line pressure against a weak protection group
I mentioned a moment ago, as well as several times on the ASC and Locked on Saints podcasts, that the Saints defense pressured Jameis Winston 30 times last week. 24 of those pressures came from the defensive line alone. If the defense can maintain their pace from the last three games in which they’ve averaged just under 22 pressures and 5 sacks per game, they’ll force Cam Newton into some tough situations. In order to do that, the defensive line will have to generate the disruption as the linebackers will be occupied with trying to keep a lid on Christian McCaffrey and Newton’s dump-off options. Cam Jordan has always played well against Carolina and had a monster game last week with 5 pressures and 2 sacks on his own. He’ll lead a hungry unit Monday night that sits third in the NFL with 41 sacks and will look to continue its trend as one of the most threatening defensive lines in football.
3. Receivers must become a factor
This is an unfortunate constant this season so I won’t harp on it a ton. The Saints are still struggling to find another effective option at the WR2 spot. Tre’Quan Smith comes and goes and Kirkwood is too effective from the slot to move outside. The team has made moves to try and address this absence in the offense but literally none have seen the field yet outside of Kirkwood. Dez Bryant was signed and then lost for the season, Brandon Marshall was signed but kept inactive for all four games on which he was on the roster, and recently TE Erik Swoope was claimed but them waived after failing his physical. Simmie Cobbs was just signed this week and is a great possession and red zone option, but he’s not a field-stretcher with a 4.64s 40. Coach Payton has mentioned that Ted Ginn, Jr. could see a return and is encouraged by his rehab, which is exactly the kind of deep threat boost this team has been missing. If Dan Arnold is back this week after being a healthy scratch in Tampa, that should also provide some help.
4. Use Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara in the passing game
We’re used to seeing these guys rack up 100-150 scrimmage yards per game. But as of late, they’ve been pretty absent from the passing game. In the last 3 contests, Kamara has only averaged 27 receiving yards per game while Mark Ingram has only totaled 16. That’s not the kind of threat these guys usually present. It will become even more imperative for them to get involved in the passing game if no other receiving options make themselves present again.
5. Contain Christian McCaffrey
McCaffrey leads the Panthers in: rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. He alone is responsible for 34% of the Panthers offense. The Saints will, without a doubt, key in on him. If they are successful in limiting his production, they’ll force Cam Newton to beat the defense with his nagging throwing shoulder injury. This goes hand-in-hand with the rest of the keys. If the Saints can limit CMC and generate pressure on Cam Newton, they’ll force him to be uncomfortable making plays with a one-dimensional offense that’s only capable of running at 66% of it’s max potential. There’s no way that kid of an offense attack can hang with the Saints offense when Drew Brees and his weapons are clicking.
Follow Ross on Twitter @RossJacksonASC