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By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A season-opening loss to begin last season didn't stop the New Orleans Saints from putting together a campaign that netted an NFC South title.
The Saints find themselves in an early hole again at the start of the 2012 campaign and look to begin another turnaround this Sunday against the division-rival Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.
One thing that will be different for the Saints this time around will come on the sidelines. New Orleans opened up its season without head coach Sean Payton, who is suspended for the entire year for failing to put a stop to his club's bounty program overseen by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
Assistant head coach Joe Vitt was also suspended for the team's first six games of 2012, leaving offensive line/running game coach Aaron Kromer in charge on an interim basis.
With Kromer at the helm for the first time, the Saints struggled to stop Washington Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III last Sunday and dropped a 40-32 shootout despite three touchdown passes from its own signal- caller, Drew Brees.
Last season, New Orleans lost a 42-34 game to the Green Bay Packers in Week 1, but responded with four straight wins en route to a 13-3 record.
"We have been in this situation before," said Kromer following the loss to Washington. "We are going to pull together, because we have a lot of character on this team. We have a tight-knit team. We have guys that feel for each other and will work together. We need to get all the parts together."
However, not only did last season's success come with Payton on the sidelines, but New Orleans also used a perfect 8-0 record at home as momentum. The Saints now hit the road after getting bested on the Superdome turf by the Redskins, but aren't looking for sympathy following their rough offseason.
"We're not in the business of making excuses," noted Brees this week. "Obviously, that's something that has been talked about a lot during the offseason and during the preseason. In fact, I think it's been made too much of a big deal of. For us, it's the guys in our locker room. It's the coaches that are there. Let's take what we have and move forward. We built a foundation here. We know how to prepare. Let's focus on the process and (we) know that that's been a winning formula for us."
Carolina is looking to put together a winning blueprint this year, but is coming off a Week 1 loss to another division foe in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who smothered the Panthers' ground game to hand the club a 16-10 defeat.
Following perhaps the best season by a NFL rookie quarterback ever, Carolina's Cam Newton topped 300 yards passing last Sunday, but was also intercepted twice.
Not one to shy away from responsibility, Newton put the loss on his shoulders.
"I've got to do a better job and making myself accountable with protecting the football," he said. "I think without any of those interceptions we could've found a way to win this football game.
Newton may have felt the pressure of playing without running back Jonathan Stewart, who missed the opener due to an ankle injury. Stewart is hoping to return for this game and was able to practice on Wednesday.
"Full participation, took his normal reps," said Panthers coach Ron Rivera. "He looked good. He started a little slow in terms of cutting. He was a little apprehensive I think, but as practice went on you could see (the ankle) loosened up more and more."
A possible return for Stewart could energize a ground game that managed just 10 yards versus the Bucs.
Series tied, 17-17
Streak: Saints have won last four meetings 2011 Meetings: Saints 30, Panthers 27 (Oct. 9 at Carolina) Saints 45, Panthers 17 (Jan. 1 at New Orleans)
Saints HC Aaron Kromer vs. Panthers: 0-0 Panthers HC Ron Rivera vs. Saints: 0-2 Kromer vs. Rivera Head-to-Head: First Meeting
Notes: Carolina's last victory in the series was a 23-10 verdict in Charlotte during Week 17 of the 2009 season, a game in which the eventual world champion Saints rested many of their starters in preparation for the playoffs. New Orleans has averaged 36.3 points over its three most recent wins over the Panthers.
BY THE NUMBERS
Offensive Team Rankings
New Orleans: 14th overall (358.0 ypg), tied 29th rushing (32.0 ypg), 2nd passing (326.0 ypg), 7th scoring (32.0 ppg)
Carolina: 22nd overall (301.0 ypg), 32nd rushing (10.0 ypg), 9th passing (291.0 ypg), tied 31st scoring (10.0 ppg)
Defensive Team Rankings
New Orleans: 32nd overall (464.0 ypg), 29th rushing (153.0 ypg), 29th passing (311.0 ypg), tied 28th scoring (40.0 ppg)
Carolina: tied 5th overall (258.0 ypg), 25th rushing (130.0 ypg), 2nd passing (128.0 ypg), tied 6th scoring (16.0 ppg)
New Orleans: -3 (0 takeaways, 3 giveaways) Carolina: -2 (0 takeaways, 2 giveaways)
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
New Orleans: 50.0 percent (2 possessions, 1 TD, 1 FG) -- tied 14th overall Carolina: 0.0 percent (1 possessions, 0 TD, 1 FG) -- tied 28th overall
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
New Orleans: 60.0 percent (5 possessions, 3 TD, 2 FG) -- tied 21st overall Carolina: 33.3 percent (3 possessions, 1 TD, 2 FG) -- tied 8th overall
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Forced to take to the air 52 times against the Redskins, Brees completed just 24 passes for 339 yards and hooked up with three different receivers for touchdowns. And while he ran his streak of consecutive games with a scoring pass to 44 -- the second-longest in NFL history -- he was also picked off twice and sacked another two times. Brees does do a good job of spreading the ball around, with wide receiver Marques Colston getting a game-high 11 targets, while Brees also looked wideout Lance Moore and tight end Jimmy Graham's way 10 times. The latter two combined for 12 catches and 205 yards while scoring twice, and running back Darren Sproles also hauled in a touchdown pass from Brees. However, the run game was non-existent. Pierre Thomas led the team with a mere 17 yards on four carries, while Mark Ingram added six rush attempts for just 15 yards. With wide receiver Devery Henderson questionable with a concussion and Adrian Arrington on injured reserve with a knee ailment, the Saints signed former Miami Dolphins wideout Greg Camarillo during the week.
Carolina's defense kept the club in its Week 1 contest with Tampa Bay, holding Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman to just 138 yards throwing. The Panthers did have trouble controlling the clock, however, and allowed the Bucs to run 36 times for 130 yards, which enabled their opponent to hold the ball for 37 minutes and 27 seconds. Carolina also failed to force a turnover, something that could have shifted momentum, but did get sacks from left end Greg Hardy and tackle Dwan Edwards. Linebacker Jon Beason returned from an injury-plagued 2011 season to lead the way for Carolina with 10 tackles, while Hardy had eight. A pair of rookies, linebacker Luke Kuechly and cornerback Josh Norman, had four tackles each. Going up against Brees, Carolina will need cornerback Chris Gamble and new free safety Haruki Nakamura to make some plays.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
There isn't much that the Panthers will look to carry over offensively from Sunday's loss. Newton was solid with 303 passing yards, but his two interceptions hurt and the mobile quarterback was also sacked three times while getting held to four yards rushing on five attempts. It was part of a miserable ground attack that saw wideout Kealoha Pilares lead the club with five yards on his one attempt. With Stewart unable to help, starting running back DeAngelo Williams posted minus-one yards on six carries. Newton wasted no time getting Steve Smith involved, however, with the veteran receiver hauling in seven of his 11 targets for 106 yards, though he did take a hit to the knee that caused him to miss practice some practice time and wear a brace as a precaution. Smith is expected to play in this game. Tight end Greg Olsen added six catches for 56 yards, while receivers Brandon LaFell and Louis Murphy combined for six catches and 128 yards, with LaFell hauling in a 22-yard touchdown pass from Newton.
The Saints made Griffin look like a veteran in Week 1, allowing the rookie to throw for 320 yards on 19-of-26 passing. That included an 88-yard scoring strike to wideout Pierre Garcon moments after the Saints took a 7-3 lead. New Orleans will need a better effort out of corners Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson, especially since nickel corner Johnny Patrick could miss this game with a knee issue. Greer may be ready to go after sitting out the opener recovering from hernia surgery. Strong safety Roman Harper had nine tackles in last week's loss, while left end Cameron Jordan led the way with 11 stops. Robinson had the Saints' lone sack and linebacker Curtis Lofton ended with nine tackles. Like Carolina did last weekend, New Orleans did not balance out Brees' mistakes by forcing any turnovers. Defensive end Will Smith, one of the players with a looming suspension due to the bounty scandal, played against the Redskins, while linebacker Jonathan Vilma was also eligible to play but is out with a knee injury.
Both the Saints and Panthers desperately need a bounce-back game and have a ton of things to clean up from their Week 1 losses. New Orleans and its veteran core should have an easier time doing just that despite hitting the road, while Newton will once again battle the high expectations he created with last season's performance. The Panthers pushed the Saints to the end in last year's meeting at Carolina, thanks to a 162-yard ground attack and three total touchdowns from Newton. Payton or no Payton, the Saints will be more prepared this time, just like they were in last season's victory over Newton's Panthers in New Orleans.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 31, Panthers 20
09/13 14:51:03 ET