Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
The young defense may be vastly improved, but they have a serious test on Sunday.
Salvaging their season to a respectable seven wins, the New Orleans Saints are a vastly different team than the Carolina Panthers saw in week two. Today we look at the defense, and how they can hope to stop a well known juggernaut in the Saints' offense.
French director François Truffaut helped establish auteur theory during the French New Wave in the 1950's. His concept of a film director went beyond simply organizing a shoot, and instructing actors -- instead it was about putting his indelible mark on a movie, where one can immediately recognize it as evoking that artist's vision.
There are thirty-two coaches in the National Football League, but few auteurs. Now that the New Orleans Saints have shown their ability with Sean Payton it's clear that he is one of these auteur-coaches. His ability to take the talent New Orleans have, and hone it is what takes a .500 team, and turns them into a perennial contender. Rather than get into the politics behind his absence, it's remarkable that the Saints have salvaged their season.
This season the Saints are Die Hard 2: Die Harder, the cast of characters are there, the story-line is vaguely familiar -- but the entire organization have lost focus. Instead of having Hans Gruber, there's a naked ex-general doing yoga. It's made for a wholly bizarre scenario where fans have so desperately wanted it to be good, but there's an air traffic controller who can't act, and a janitor who supplies terrible comic relief.
We're still talking about football, right?
X-Factor: Luke Kuechly
Carolina's first-round pick has been asked to shoulder so much in his rookie season, and against the Saints he'll be leaned on with the weight of a franchise. The Panthers' singular goal is to top their win total from last season, and there's an obsession with getting to 7-9 in Ron Rivera's second season; a depressing goal, but an important one nonetheless.
Appropriately everything comes down to Keek. Whether it's Darren Sproles' elusiveness, the match-up nightmare of Jimmy Graham, or Devery Henderson in the slot -- the New Orleans Saints love to attack the middle of the field, and do so exceptionally well. In their week two contest Sproles had a terrible day on the ground, but swing and screen passes ate the Panthers alive for over 120 yards.
This is a different Saints offense, but this is also a different Luke Kuechly. Impossible to imagine in week two, now him being up to the task is almost passe... almost.
New Orleans run offense vs. Carolina run defense
The Saints' run offense is all over the place. Using three rushers to attack their opponents, the Saints have had some success running the ball, they just don't use them very often. Ranked 27th in the NFL in rushing attempts, it remains to be seen whether 2011 first-round pick Mark Ingram will pan out. Averaging just 3.9 yards per carry this year, he hasn't opened up the passing attack the way the Saints had hoped -- but he hasn't needed to.
Ingram isn't a threat, but Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas are. Combining for over 700 rushing yards, at almost 5.0 yards per carry -- Sproles and Thomas are the players who have the ability to really hurt the Panthers.
Luke Kuechly can stop Pierre Thomas up the middle, but he'll have his hands full with a variety of other assignments. Concurrently, the Panthers have done an atrocious job stopping runs to the edges, which is where Darren Sproles will have a field day. New Orleans wont run often, but when they do they'll have success.
New Orleans pass offense vs. Carolina pass defense
It's miraculous the Panthers have stopped teams without Chris Gamble, but the quarterbacks they've faced since that point are a comedic bunch: Nick Foles, Brady Quinn, Matt Lienart -- yes, they also stonewalled Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers, but that is because of Carolina's defensive ends, not their secondary.
Can Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson get to Drew Brees? Last week they were noticeably absent in a game against Oakland they should have dominated. There's a reason New Orleans have only allowed 24 sacks on the season, and it's because Brees is so good at getting the football out quickly.
Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, Lance Moore, and Darren Sproles -- the passing weapons are too much for Carolina's makeshift secondary to contend with. This will be a game of bending, not breaking -- and ensuring that in the short field they do just enough to keep the Saints out of the end zone.
So, it's come to this: My final game preview for the 2012 season. It hasn't always been easy, or pretty, but thankfully the Carolina Panthers have done enough since Thanksgiving to make football fun again.
This season comes to a close the way it began, so much promise. Whether Ron Rivera is here in 2013 or not, he's helped lay the foundation for a very good team. Players have been coached up, Cam Newton has turned the corner in his development, and despite losing more games than winning, strangely more good than bad will come out of this disappointment. A new general manager, hopefully with a more youthful approach, and perhaps a more cut throat attitude. Couple this with a continuation of the successful drafting we saw in April, and perhaps this team will begin to turn the corner.
Sunday's game could be the most important the Panthers have had in the last five years. The gravity of reaching 7-9 weighs on the team, as they desperately want to show some improvement -- even if it's only a minute one. Given how much they have to play for I think they can do it, as we've seen them will victories in the last several weeks.
Carolina Panthers 33 - New Orleans Saints 27
2012 Panthers' pick record: 10-5