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Panthers at Saints defensive preview: The defense has to get better

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The Panthers defense is coming down to Earth at the worst possible time.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago, we were using this space to glorify the Carolina Panthers defense. They were generating sacks and turnovers while stifling opposing passing games. The run defense wasn’t good, but it didn’t really matter.

Fast forward to the present day, and you’ll find us lamenting the play of the defense as the entire franchise skids towards the finish line of the 2019 season. The defense was a top three unit according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA just a few weeks ago. Now they’re 17th.

According to DVOA, the run defense is still the worst in the league by a significant margin even after limiting the Falcons to 54 rushing yards on 2.1 yards per carry, which shows how truly dreadful the Panthers were in that regard previously.

Normally all of that would be especially ominous heading into New Orleans to take on the Saints, but these aren’t the same Saints we’re used to. This team goes through lulls on offense; they’ve been held without a touchdown in three games this season, including at home against the Falcons two weeks ago with Drew Brees at the helm. But when everything is clicking, they’re dangerous.

Here are the keys for the Panthers defense to steal a game in New Orleans.

  • Stop the run. I almost never say this in these previews. Stopping the run should be a low priority in today’s NFL. That comes with the slight caveat that you can’t be historically bad at stopping the run. Regular bad is okay. Historically bad, not so much. The Panthers are threatening to be historically bad.

The Saints haven’t run the ball as well this year as they have in recent seasons, but that doesn’t mean much given what the Panthers have done this season. Alvin Kamara is the exact type of back the Panthers struggle with—slippery and elusive in the open field. He’s struggled with injuries this season, but he seems rejuvenated after the bye week. He’s averaged 5.8 yards per carry in his last two games, including a 13-carry, 75-yard performance against a Buccaneers team that had stifled every other ground game to date.

It doesn’t stop with Kamara though. Latavius Murray has taken on the Mark Ingram role as the bruising back with deceptively good hands out of the backfield. He isn’t as shifty as Kamara, but he’s a big play threat if he gets into space.

  • Stop the running backs again, this time as pass catchers. This is the most running back heavy defensive preview in the history of me writing it. But that’s what happens when you play the Saints. Drew Brees loves to throw the check down, and it’s hard to blame him when you have backs capable of turning those into positive plays. Murray and Kamara combine for about nine catches per game and take those catches for an average of 6.9 yards. The Panthers secondary has been suspect at tackling ball carriers in the open field. That could be a problem.
  • Cover Michael Thomas with everybody simultaneously. Michael Thomas is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, and he doesn’t get enough credit for it. He’s somehow caught 84% of his 260 targets over the last two seasons. This year, he’s on pace for 150 catches, 1826 yards, and 10 touchdowns (The 150 catches would break Marvin Harrison’s current record by seven). He’s caught at least eight balls and gained at least 89 receiving yards in all four of the games Brees has started and finished at quarterback this season.

He’s doing all that with a super blah cast of pass catchers around him. His 1,141 receiving yards are 831 yards more than the Saints number two wide receiver, former Panthers great Ted Ginn Jr. Third string quarterback Taysom Hill has more receptions than the number three wide receiver. Everybody’s favorite fantasy football tight end bye week fill-in Jared Cook gets some scraps, particularly in the red zone, but he gets a smidge under five targets per game.

All that is to say that the Panthers should devote heavy resources into covering Michael Thomas instead of trotting out their usual base defense and hoping the All World player doesn’t do All World things.