It seems like quite a while ago that the Panthers were 4-2 and just a game behind the Saints for the division lead – while they still sit at a mediocre 5-5, the performances on both sides of the ball over the last month have radically shifted the attitude surrounding the team. However, with all that said, they are still mathematically in the playoff hunt, and with a win against the Saints, they would not only put themselves just two games back in the division, but give themselves a key win for a tiebreaker – should it come to that. While the Panthers certainly won’t enter Sunday’s game as favorites, if they are able to win, this could be a game that allows them to regain their focus somewhat and make a genuine push for the playoffs with every game being a must-win. Stranger things have happened.
So what do they have to do differently in order to move to 6-5 and keep their season alive for at least a little longer?
Run The Damn Ball
Yes, I know the Panthers got behind early against the Falcons – but even so, the fact they only gave McCaffrey the ball 14 times out of the backfield is something to be frustrated about, especially when he averaged five yards per carry. The Panthers obviously need to make sure they aren’t running their star player into the ground – but that should mean giving the ball to somebody else, not just not running the ball. Now, in terms of the Saints, they do have a good run defense (8th via PFR), but in terms of yards-per-attempt, they rank pretty much in the middle of the pack.
What this means is that the Saints are still a perfectly solid run defense, but that they also rely somewhat on forcing teams to chase the game and, in so doing, give up on the run game. The key for the Panthers will be to continue to run the ball even if it doesn’t product huge yardage. If they are able to even get close to four yards-per-carry, then that should allow them to keep themselves at least within touching distance of the chains and so help the Panthers avoid the obvious passing situations where they have so struggled.
The Panthers running game puts a lot of pressure on the offensive line, and there’s no reason to believe that this is suddenly going to change; but at least in the early stages of the game, they need to be content with consistent positive yardage to allow them to sustain drives and to keep the game from getting away from them early and, crucially, if it does start to get away from them somewhat, they can’t afford to just throw aside the run game as they will pile even more pressure on Kyle Allen.
Force The Deep Ball
The Saints rank second in the NFL in completion percentage and sixth in interception percentage, but just 27th in yards-per-completion, with their offense prioritizing consistently getting solid gains rather than looking to throw the ball deep. which has in turn allowed them to reduce the amount of pressure that opposing defenses are able to get on their quarterback. For the Panthers, it’s all well knowing this, but stopping an offense like this doesn’t come easily.
It’s hard to defend the short pass without sacrificing elsewhere, but quite frankly that is a sacrifice they are going to have to make. Drew Brees doesn’t have the arm strength he once did, and while he can still throw a nice deep ball at times, at this stage, he is far more dangerous at picking a team apart underneath than dialing up the deep ball. Because of this, the Panthers are likely going to have to make sure they take away the quick easy throws, give their pass rush a little bit longer to get to him, and trust their cornerbacks and safeties to prevent the Saints from being able to hit the long ball with any consistency.
Of course, this is something that could go really, really wrong – but the Saints are 8-2 for a reason and if the Panthers want to be able to come away with a win, they are likely not going to be able to do this by being hyper-cautious and waiting for the Saints’ offense to make mistakes. Rivera has never really lived up to his “Riverboat” moniker on a consistent basis, but if the Panthers are going to make the playoffs, they are likely going to have to roll the dice here and there, and taking a chance on the Saints’ deep ball is one such gamble.
O-Line, Run Defense & Will It Be Grier Time?