NFL Preview - New Orleans (5-3) at Carolina (1-6)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - There have been times this season when the New Orleans Saints looked an awful lot like the 2009 juggernaut that could hardly be stopped on its way to a Super Bowl title. Duplicating such high-caliber efforts over back-to-back weeks has been a challenge for the defending world champions, however.
The Saints seem to have a good opportunity to deliver only their second winning streak of the year, however, with the offensively-challenged Carolina Panthers next on the docket. The two NFC South inhabitants square off this Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, where New Orleans will attempt to build off one of its best outings of the season.
In need of a win to keep pace in a competitive division race, the Saints rose to the occasion and put forth a strong overall showing this past weekend. Behind a terrific bounce-back performance from quarterback Drew Brees and a gritty display from a banged-up defense, New Orleans handed the high-flying Pittsburgh Steelers only their second loss of the season with an impressive 20-10 verdict at the Superdome.
Brees shook off an awful four-interception day in the Saints' shocking 30-17 home loss to non-contending Cleveland the previous week to complete a sharp 33-of-44 passes for 305 yards and two touchdowns against one of the league's top defenses. On the opposite side of the ball, New Orleans was able to limit Pittsburgh to a modest 279 yards and 13 first downs despite missing starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter due to injury.
The Saints have surrendered the third-fewest yards in the NFL this season, and the unit will get to face an anemic Carolina offense that's currently dead last in both total yards (251.4 ypg) and scoring (12.1 ppg), 31st in passing (165.9 ypg) and 28th in rushing (85.6 ypg).
The Panthers mustered only 251 yards and 10 first downs in a hard-fought 16-14 road setback to New Orleans back in Week 4, and that was with top running back DeAngelo Williams on the field. That may not be the case this time around, as the two-time 1,000-yard rusher is battling a left foot sprain that also kept him out of last Sunday's 20-10 loss at St. Louis.
Carolina will have a different quarterback directing the offense in the rematch, with Matt Moore slated to start for a third consecutive week. Heralded rookie Jimmy Clausen was under center for the Panthers in the early- October clash, but threw for just 146 yards on 11-of-21 passing against the Saints.
New Orleans enters this weekend's play with a 5-3 record and stands a half- game behind co-leaders Atlanta and Tampa Bay in the NFC South. The Saints will be shooting for back-to-back victories since beginning the season 2-0, while trying to avoid their recent pitfalls against sub-.500 teams as well. The club has lost its last two encounters with opponents possessing losing records, having fallen to 3-4 Arizona in Week 5 and the 2-5 Browns two Sundays ago.
Carolina leads its all-time series with New Orleans, 17-14, and has not been swept in a home-and-home set with the Saints since the 2001 season. New Orleans has left with defeats in three of its last four visits to Bank of America Stadium and last won in Charlotte via a 31-6 decision in 2007. The Panthers posted a 23-10 home victory in last year's regular-season finale, though the Saints rested many of their starters in preparation for the playoffs.
Panthers head coach John Fox has an 11-6 record against the Saints in his career, while New Orleans' Sean Payton is 3-6 against both Fox and the Panthers as a head coach. Fox and Payton both served as members of Jim Fassel's staff with the New York Giants from 1999 through 2001.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
With main running backs Pierre Thomas (ankle sprain) and Reggie Bush (broken fibula) expected to miss another week, the Saints will likely rely on the accurate right arm of Brees (2334 passing yards, 16 TD, 11 INT) this Sunday. Though the fiery All-Pro hasn't been as consistent as in years past, he's still made good on over 70 percent of his throws and is once again on pace for another season of more than 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. Physical wideout Marques Colston (46 receptions, 527 yards, 2 TD) remains the top target in New Orleans' sophisticated aerial attack, but there are plenty of other good options for an offense that's averaging over 280 yards per game (5th overall). Brees did an excellent job sharing the wealth in the Week 4 meeting with Carolina, as wideouts Lance Moore (29 receptions, 5 TD) and Devery Henderson (22 receptions, 1 TD) and tight ends Jeremy Shockey (30 receptions, 2 TD) and David Thomas (23 receptions, 2 TD) all had at least five catches in the win. Pierre Thomas and Bush also sat out the Saints' previous matchup with the Panthers, but stand-ins Chris Ivory (332 rushing yards) and Ladell Betts (119 rushing yards, 1 TD, 19 receptions) combined for 114 yards on 25 carries to provide a threat from the running game.
Brees and his cohorts will be attempting to successfully navigate a pretty solid Carolina stop unit that's permitted the fourth-fewest yards in the league (301.7 ypg), ranks third in pass efficiency defense, and produced 10 interceptions. Chris Gamble (26 tackles, 7 PD) and Richard Marshall (37 tackles, 1 INT) give the Panthers a formidable cornerback duo, while strong safety Charles Godfrey (37 tackles, 5 PD) has developed into a dangerous ballhawk in his third NFL season, having picked off a team-best four passes thus far. Carolina hasn't been as effective in stopping the run, allowing an average of 119 yards per game on the ground (21st overall), but was able to hold St. Louis standout Steven Jackson to a non-threatening 59 yards on 23 attempts last week. Strongside linebacker James Anderson (68 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT) tops the Cats in tackles and had a monster game against the Saints earlier in the year, amassing 16 stops (14 solo), a sack and recovering a pair of fumbles. On the opposite side, Jon Beason (53 tackles) is a two-time All-Pro who's renowned for his coverage skills.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Matt Moore (844 passing yards, 5 TD, 10 INT) provided a bit of a spark after being re-installed as a starter by Fox in Week 7, throwing for a career-best 308 yards and three touchdowns in a home win over San Francisco, but regressed badly with a three-interception outcome against the Rams last Sunday. Carolina's inability to mount a consistent pass attack has negatively impacted a once-potent running game as well, with the team averaging a meager 3.3 yards per rush for the year. Jonathan Stewart (178 rushing yards, 5 receptions, 2 total TD), who's at a frustrating 2.8 yards per carry clip right now, will carry the load if Williams (361 rushing yards, 1 TD, 11 receptions) is unable to go. A painfully young receiving corps is beginning to show signs of progress, as rookies David Gettis (18 receptions, 2 TD) and Brandon LaFell (15 receptions, 1 TD) teamed up for 216 yards and two touchdowns on 14 catches in the San Francisco victory, taking advantage of constant rolled coverage towards veteran playmaker Steve Smith (26 receptions, 2 TD). Stewart can also be an asset as a receiver, as evidenced by his 55-yard scoring connection with Clausen in the Week 4 loss to New Orleans.
The injuries at cornerback and standout free safety Darren Sharper's absence for the season's first six weeks while recovering from knee surgery haven't affected the Saints' secondary too much, as the team presently stands third in pass defense (178.6 ypg) and has yielded only six touchdowns through the air. Sharper has since returned and made his presence felt, coming up with a key fumble recovery in last Sunday's win, and Super Bowl XLIV hero Porter (17 tackles, 1 INT) seems to be on track to play this week after missing four games with an injured knee. Tackle Sedrick Ellis (21 tackles, 3 sacks) is New Orleans' leader in sacks, but coordinator Gregg Williams will bring the blitz from anywhere, as he showed when defensive backs Malcolm Jenkins (42 tackles, 1 sack, 8 PD) and Usama Young (14 tackles, 1 sack) both took down Clausen in these teams' earlier encounter. Active middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma (50 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and strong safety Roman Harper (39 tackles, 1 INT, 4 forced fumbles) head up a run defense that was burned for a 38-yard touchdown by the Steelers' Rashad Mendenhall last week, but held the Pittsburgh back to 33 yards on his other 14 attempts.
Fantasy players won't want to pay too much attention to this game, as there aren't a whole lot of really intriguing options to choose from. Brees is certainly one participant worth using and Colston has been very productive in recent weeks, but no other receivers stand out in New Orleans' spread-it- around system with the possible exception of Lance Moore, the team's leader with five touchdown catches. The backfield scenario isn't favorable either, with Ivory, Betts and Julius Jones all figuring to get touches. Stewart will merit a start if the struggling back is Carolina's clear-cut primary ball carrier, but the usually-reliable Smith now carries significant risk due to the Panthers' less-than-desirable quarterback situation. Stay away from Moore but keep an eye on Carolina kicker John Kasay, who's 6-of-7 on field goal tries beyond 40 yards. Opposing the punchless Panthers makes any fantasy defense a good value, and the Saints' should be no exception.
If the Saints play to last week's level and the Panthers perform to their usual standards, this game won't be very close. New Orleans has had its issues getting it together in consecutive weeks, however, and an offense that's been too reliant on Brees lately could run into a few problems against a Carolina defense that can hold its own versus the pass. The Panthers hung tough against the Saints in the Superdome last October and are capable of doing so once more this week. However, New Orleans still holds a clear talent edge that eventually will turn out to be the determining factor.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 20, Panthers 16
11/04 12:48:21 ET