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Week 12 Preview: Saints vs Panthers

Good morning, Who Dat Nation. We are just hours away from game time when your New Orleans Saints welcome the NFC South rival Carolina Panthers for the first of their two annual matchups. I had the privilege of getting to join ASC’s Godfather, Tyler (@TyMcLatchy on Twitter), on the All Saints Considered podcast last night to preview the game. In preparation for the show, I researched and wrote down some detailed notes for each team, so I figured I would put all of the info in to a blog for your reading pleasure to get you prepared. I hope that you guys enjoy it and PLEASE give me feedback on Twitter (@DCBilliotjr). My two weekly blogs are both post-game, but I can make a strong effort to put together something like this pre-game if that’s something y’all would like. I need you guys to hit me up on Twitter and let me know, though!

The Saints come in to this game with a record of 8-2, three games ahead of the Panthers in the NFC South. After a perplexing loss coming out of their bye week to the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans got back on track with a dominant 34-17 victory in Tampa Bay last week to complete the season sweep of the Buccaneers. They did what good teams do; make adjustments and clean up their mistakes. They’ll need to stay on track, too, because the NFC is loaded with good teams atop the conference. Currently tied for the #2 seed with the Green Bay Packers, the Saints are chasing the 9-1 San Francisco 49ers, who actually come to the Superdome for a HUGE matchup in two weeks. Right behind those three teams sit the Seattle Seahawks (8-2) and the Minnesota Vikings (8-3).

As for the Carolina Panthers, things have begun to go south in recent weeks. At 5-5, the Panthers are holding on for dear life with their playoff hopes. People were quickly ready to anoint Kyle Allen as the team’s next franchise quarterback after they won four straight games following an 0-2 start. Then, they ran in to the buzz saw that is the 49ers a few weeks ago and now they have lost three of their last four. Head Coach Ron Rivera has to be feeling the seat getting warm underneath him, so don’t be surprised to see Carolina coming out desperate today.

Saints Offense vs. Panthers Defense

Saints Team Offense

  • Total offense: 364.0 yards per game (14th in NFL)
  • Scoring offense: 23.8 points per game (13th)
  • Pass offense: 256.5 yards per game (9th)
  • Rush offense: 107.5 yards per game (17th)

Panthers Team Defense

  • Total defense: 362.0 yards allowed per game (19th in NFL)
  • Scoring defense: 25.7 points allowed per game (25th)
  • Pass defense: 233.6 yards per game (15th)
  • Rush defense: 128.4 yards per game (27th)

Pass Offense

I went back and looked at the team’s passing stats from four of the last five times these two played in 2017 and 2018. They played a third time in ’17 in the Wild Card playoff game, while I excluded last year’s Week 17 matchup with most starters, including Drew Brees, resting. In those four games, Brees averaged 70.1% completions, 267 yards, 1.5 touchdowns, 0.5 interceptions, and was sacked 1.5 times per game. All of those numbers are pretty low and each stat was fairly consistent in each matchup. Without having looked, I would bet that his averages are much higher against Atlanta and Tampa Bay. So, Carolina deserves credit for making things tough for Brees, despite New Orleans winning each of those four games. On the flip side, Michael Thomas had success against the Panthers in those games. He averaged 6.75 receptions and 84.75 yards per game, while catching a touchdown in three of the four games. Carolina cornerback James Bradberry has struggled against Thomas. I know I am not really going out on a limb by saying that I expect him to have a good game with the historic numbers he’s been putting up this year, but I would be surprised to see Thomas get slowed down this week. Tyler did some research on what type of coverage the Panthers primarily run and mentioned that they are susceptible to seam routes, so there could be opportunities for Jared Cook to have a solid game. As Alvin Kamara continues to get back to his usual self, look for him to get involved out of the backfield.

Protection will be key for the offensive line today, as Carolina is tied for 1st in the NFL with 39 sacks. Their pass rush is very balanced with plenty of guys contributing, as Mario Addison is the team leader with only 8.0 sacks. I say “only” because it is rare that you see a team lead the NFL in a particular stat, while not having an individual rank in the top-5 or even top-10, but that is the case here as Addison is tied for 11th. We know how good Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead have been on the outsides, shutting down premier pass rushers throughout the year, but the interior will need to continue to play well with a guy like Gerald McCoy lining up in the middle. Nick Easton stepped up huge in the absence of Andrus Peat in his first playing time since 2017, so I expect the protection to remain solid as they typically are.

Rush Offense

The running game is my #1 key for the Saints in this game for a few reasons. First, as I just talked about, the Panthers do a pretty good job of keeping Drew Brees from lighting it up through the air. So, being able to establish the run is important to keep Carolina off balance. Second, the Panthers struggle with stopping opposing rushing attacks, so it is imperative that the Saints take advantage of that. Ranked 27th in the NFL, they are allowing 128.4 yards per game. New Orleans was able to start finding their groove with Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray against Tampa Bay last week, but there’s no doubt that they would like to finely tune the one-two punch and get that aspect rolling as we head down the stretch. Kamara only has one rushing touchdown all year, but I can see him finding the endzone once or twice today.

Saints Defense vs. Panthers Offense

Saints Team Defense

  • Total defense: 318.3 yards allowed per game (6th in NFL)
  • Scoring defense: 19.9 points allowed per game (12th)
  • Pass defense: 233.0 yards per game (12th)
  • Rush defense: 85.3 yards per game (3rd)

Panthers Team Offense

  • Total offense: 346.6 yards per game (18th in NFL)
  • Scoring offense: 22.8 points per game (15th)
  • Pass offense: 220.6 yards per game (22nd)
  • Rush offense: 126.0 yards per game (10th)

Pass Defense

We will talk about it in a little bit, but with how much Christian McCaffrey carries the Panthers offense on his back in the running game, Kyle Allen has not had to put on Cam Newton’s self-proclaimed Superman costume to help the team move the ball. I believe the Saints need to force him to have to try and do just that today, though. Allen is completing just 61.6% of his passes and has thrown 9 interceptions compared to his 10 touchdowns. He has been sacked 28 times in his 8 starts, which is 3.5 times per game. Cam Jordan has been a monster this year with 9.5 sacks, which is tied for 6th in the NFL. Marcus Davenport, Trey Hendrickson, Sheldon Rankins, and David Onyemata should be salivating at the opportunity to get after Allen with Jordan. As for who Allen is trying to get the ball to, it’s pretty simple. McCaffrey’s 59 receptions and average of 51.7 yards receiving out of the backfield are 2nd in the NFL among running backs. DJ Moore is having a nice sophomore season with 62 receptions and 77.9 yards per game, but has only found the endzone once. Curtis Samuel is another young receiver quickly on the rise, who has caught 4 touchdowns so far. Don’t forget about savvy veteran Greg Olsen, who is still doing his thing in his Hall-of-Fame caliber career. The Saints may be without top cornerback Marshon Lattimore for the second straight game as he recovers from a hamstring injury, but I can’t say enough about how well Eli Apple and PJ Williams played against statistically the best wide receiver duo in the NFL in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin last week. Marcus Williams should have chances to continue his breakout season against the young quarterback. His 12 pass breakups are tied for 2nd in the NFL, while he’s tied for 3rd with 4 interceptions.

Rush Defense

I alluded to it a bit ago, but the biggest key to this entire game for me is how much the Saints can limit Christian McCaffrey. I say “limit” because it is unrealistic to hope to “stop” him. He has been just that good. He’s leading the league with 1,059 yards rushing, which comes out to an impressive 105.9 yards per game. He is also tied for the NFL lead in rushing touchdowns with 11. There is no doubt that McCaffrey is the biggest threat this year to the defense’s impressive streak of 36 straight games without allowing a 100 yard rusher. Obviously the team and anyone rooting for the black and gold wants to see that streak continue, but holding CMC to anything around 100 yards rushing or less would be a success, in my opinion. If Dennis Allen’s unit can make things at least a little tough for the third year running back, it would force Kyle Allen to have to beat them and you have to feel good about your chances in that scenario.

Conclusion

The line for this game is Saints -9.5. That feels big to me for a division game against a team that always provides a tight matchup, but I do expect the Saints to win by a touchdown. Something tells me that we see Alvin Kamara’s best game of the season. As long as they are both performing well in the NFL, the debate will roll on over who is the best running back out of the 2017 draft class between he and Christian McCaffrey. With McCaffrey getting all of the love this year, I have a feeling Kamara will be looking to make a statement in this one.

Thank you, as always, for your time and support. I truly appreciate all of you and remember to give me a shout on Twitter and let me know if you’d like more pregame stuff like this. Also, go check out the ASC Podcast that Tyler and I dropped discussing this game. I hope to talk to you guys soon. Enjoy the game!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter @DCBilliotJr for daily Saints talk and live tweeting of each and every game!