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Zach Strief:  Saints look to make it 6 straight for the Panthers

Zach Strief
December 17, 2018 - 1:18 pm
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When a season begins, all 32 fan bases feel like this could be their year.  I know you have felt that before.  Let’s be honest, you’re wrong a lot more than you’re right.  That’s because winning in the NFL is a difficult task.  There are 32 machines around the country designed to do one thing, win football games.  Hundreds of qualified coaches, skilled players and front offices with years of experience.  All of them are trying to do the exact same thing.  Win.  That’s why it’s rare to win.  That’s why the whole Who Dat Nation is in a very special position right now.  The Saints have won… again and again and again.  The result is the situation we find ourselves in.  Three games to play, 1.5 games ahead in the NFC, needing two wins to clinch the one seed and force everyone through New Orleans on a path to Atlanta.  Read that twice.  It’s what we believed could happen this year, like we always do, but it’s actually happening.  The Carolina Panthers are the next step on that journey.

When the season started there was a belief that the NFC South could again send three teams to the playoffs, but that has not evolved.  The Falcons faced a rash of injuries leading to their demise, the Buccaneers fumbled their way to another losing season and the Panthers sat at 6-2 before losing 5 straight.  When you look at the Panthers last five games, there are some glaring issues that have caused issues for Carolina.  First, it is clear watching tape that Cam Newton is not healthy.  He has had his shoulder listed on the injury list all year as a result of an off-season rotator cuff surgery.  It hasn’t fully recovered.  I’ve always said that players, who have lived off natural ability, struggle the most when that ability is compromised.  Cam Newton has never been technically sound and has never been a tremendously accurate quarterback.  Even more dangerous, he has always been a confirmation quarterback.  What I mean by that is, rather than anticipating a receiver being open based on coverage, he has to SEE that his man is open.  He then would rely on his explosive right arm to make up the timing difference.  That has long worked for him and because it worked, he has never made the jump to becoming an anticipation thrower.  The result, as the arm strength has dissolved, balls he once got away with are now getting tipped, batted or picked off.  

Newton is completing a career best 68.8% of his passes, but those are not explosive yards.  His number one target McCaffrey, who is the leading receiver, does all of his work after the catch.  The downfield passing game has struggled for the Panthers.  What they have done well is run the football.  They have the second-best run game in football.  The fact of the matter is Carolina has been inconsistent in that area as well, as of late, failing to rush for 100 yards in 3 of their last 5 games.  They’ll have more tough-sledding vs. the NFL’s number one rush defense in the Saints.  With a lack of offensive fire power, at least the Panthers can rely on one of the better defenses in football… or can they?  

The Panthers defense has been the identity of this team for a long time.  This year that has not been the case.  While they are decent against the run this year, Carolina has struggled with balls going over their heads all season long.  The Panthers secondary has some good young players, led by former LSU Tiger Donte Jackson, who leads with 4 INT.  What they haven’t had is a pass rush.  The Panthers rank 23rd in the NFL in sacks as an aging defensive line has struggled to apply the necessary pressure.  That has led to a much higher percentage of pressure coming from Carolina than they are accustom to and more shorthanded coverages, all resulting in more big plays.  The Saints are still number one in the NFL, giving up a lead low 14 sacks all season long.  A lack of pressure tonight could spell disaster for a Carolina defense that needs a big game to stay in the playoff hunt.  

As has been the case for most of this season, this game’s result is going to be far more a result of how the Saints play than how the Panthers do.  That’s typically the case, when a team is more talented and more complete.  That’s the case here with the Saints.  The Saints are a better football team on all three phases.  There are a few things I think the Saints can do to help their quest for the one seed.  

Christian McCaffrey has been the entire Panthers offense this season.  He is their leading rusher and receiver.  McCaffrey currently sits 4th in the NFL in yards from scrimmage.  The Panthers have done a good job running rubs and picks to get him separation from linebackers.  I think the Saints could look to the Dallas Cowboys to assist in covering McCaffrey.  The Cowboys often left a corner or safety for Kamara, not allowing a true matchup problem and keeping Alvin in check.  The same could apply tonight for McCaffrey.  

The other difficulty for the Saints defense tonight is the zone/read scheme with Newton.  The zone/read is effective, because it forces defenses to play assignment sound football.  It’s an area I think the Saints have excelled in this year.  I don’t think the Saints have the most talented front 7.  What I do think, they have the most assignment sound front 7 in the NFL.  They have played tremendous team defense, turning backs to the pursuit, when tackles couldn’t be made, selling out with effort to maintain gap controls and being physical at the point to reestablish the line of scrimmage.  That is exactly what the Saints will have to do tonight.  Fortunately, it’s what they’ve been doing all season.  

The other aspect the Saints need to win is controlling the pocket of the Panthers.  Cam Newton is not a step up quarterback, he’s an escape quarterback.  It is an area the Saints have been hurt in a few keys spots this season.  Cam is the most talented running quarterback in football and he will often trust his feet, more than his receivers.  We saw Saints defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth last week do a tremendous job, after realizing he wasn’t winning his pass rush to force Winston back into the pocket.  It’s evidence that it is being coached hard by Ryan Neilson, the Saints defensive line coach.  They need to continue to improve in that area.  

Saints fans are used to the phrase “the number one ______ in football.”  What we aren’t so used to is that blank being filled by any number of defensive phrases, but that is what fills it this season.  Over the past 5 games, the Saints have given up the fewest points, have the most sacks, quarterback hits and turnovers.  The Saints, simply stated, are the most complete football team on the planet.  The Saints dominant defense has made it so.  They need to continue their dominance for two more weeks and we can rest and recharge our key players for two full weeks.  There are exciting times a head Saints fans… the pigs are on the runway.

 

***Saints fans–Are you ready for prime time, Monday Night football?  The SAINTS battle the PANTHERS tonight in Carolina...coverage on WWL starts at 3pm!   Join former Saints offensive lineman, Steve Korte and Seth Dunlap for Acadian Windows “FANS FIRST TAKE!”  Time for Who Dats to check in from wherever you’re tailgatin’!  Then, at 5 o’clock - the Bud Light “Countdown to Kickoff” with Bobby Hebert & Kristian Garic.  Game time is 7:20pm … with the “Voice of the Saints” Zach Strief, color analyst & Saints all-time leading rusher, Deuce McAllister - and Steve Geller on the sidelines.  After the game – sound off on “THE POINT AFTER” with the Cajun Cannon & K-Dawg... till 1am.  That’s wall-to-wall SAINTS-PANTHERS football tonighton the flagship station of your New Orleans Saints---WWL - 105.3FM, 870AM, WWL.com and the RADIO.com app! Remember, you can stream Saints games LIVE…on your laptop or desktop

Saints fans - TURN DOWN YOUR TV & TURN UP SAINTS RADIO!  Why listen to those TV guys, who don’t know the Black & Gold, when you can experience the game with Zach & Deuce?  Syncing up is real easy to do:  just turn down the sound down on your TV … turn up WWL on 105.3FM…then get your remote & pause the game to sync up to our broadcast.  Real simple.  Let’s continue the Saints game tradition with the home team on WWL! 

 

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