8:30 PM EST, CBS/NFL Network – Line: New Orleans -3
An NFC South rivalry continues tonight as the New Orleans Saints travel Bank of America Field to face the Carolina Panthers on Thursday Night Football. With all four denizens of the South struggling, the division is still very much up for grabs as we reach the midway point of the 2014 campaign. In fact, fact, all four of those teams have a losing record, with just two games separating First from Last Place. Interestingly, these teams finished First and Second in the division last season, sporting a combined 23-9 record. Fast-forward to the present and that is simply not the case, as both teams have struggled mightily for a variety of reasons thus far. New Orleans (3-4) sits mere percentage points behind their adversaries tonight in the standings, courtesy of sloppy play and a deflated defense, which was one of the team’s strengths in their resurgence last season. Sean Payton’s charges have yet to win on the road this season, going 0-4 while allowing 31.3 points and committing nine turnovers for a dreadful minus-six differential in those outings. Furthermore, injuries have ravaged them on both sides of the ball, leaving the Backfield all but depleted, and the Secondary in shambles. With that said, this team could very well be 6-1 if not for some close losses they’ve sustained on the road; with the exception of 38-17 drubbing at the hands of the Cowboys, the Saints have lost their other three contests by a slim margin of six points, and even held Fourth Quarter leads on all three occasions.
However, things could be looking up for Payton and Co., who are fresh off of thrashing the Green Bay Packers last Sunday Night in a 44-23 blowout. In what was their most complete performance of the season, New Orleans was solid on both sides of the ball, as they put their foot on the gas and outscored the visitors 28-7 in the Second Half. In a track meet where both combatants combined for 986 yards, the hosts got a whopping 193 yards out of their running game, led by Mark Ingram and his 172 yards on 31 carries. The former Heisman and First Round Pick has been dogged by injuries and poor play throughout his young career, but looks like he is finally reaching his potential as a featured Tailback in one of the game’s most prolific offenses. With fellow ‘backs Khiry Robinson (forearm) and Pierre Thomas (shoulder) on the mend, Ingram has averaged a career-high 82.8 yards on a very healthy 5.7 yards per carry, with four touchdowns to his credit. The Saints’ offense has always been more dangerous when they’ve been balanced, which is precisely what Ingram is bringing to the table; the ground game is averaging 133.0 yards per game (7th overall) on 5.1 yards per carry, the second-highest figure in the league, despite only averaging 25.9 carries per game (23rd overall). Of course, success on the ground makes Drew Brees and the passing attack all the more effective, which isn’t something the rest of the league wants to hear. Through seven games New Orleans ranks second in passing offense (318.1) and seventh in net yards per pass (7.2), but with seven interceptions has been rather turnover-prone. Brees continues to to be a statistical marvel, completing 69.5% of his attempts for 2,227 yards (7.5 yards/attempt), fourteen touchdowns and seven interceptions, with a Total QBR of 72.06, his highest since 2011. Nothing the Packers did managed to slow him down, as he went a stellar 27-of-32 for 311 yards and three touchdown passes, marking the first outing in three weeks in which he hadn’t been picked off. Lifetime, Brees in 8-8 in sixteen starts against the Panthers, completing 66.8% of his passes for an average of 290.1 yards, with 29 touchdowns and fourteen interceptions.
When talking about the Saints and their potential for postseason success, the play of their defense oftentimes limits the length of that discussion. Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan worked a miracle last season, turning what was statistically the worst defense in NFL history into a unit that ranked both fourth in points allowed and total defense. One would think that another year in his system with some new acquisitions that better fit said scheme would lead to a continued development on this side of the ball, but that has simply not been the case. In fact, the Saints have regressed significantly from last year’s much-improved side; through seven games, Ryan’s charges have allowed 26.9 points (26th overall) on 390.4 yards (28th overall), including 289.3 versus the pass (31st overall), and another 101.1 versus the rush (10th overall). Opposing Quarterbacks have lit up this group throughout the first half of the season, completing 66.3% of their attempts on a whopping 7.6 net yards per attempt (29th overall), and a dozen touchdowns (15th overall). Thirteen turnovers from the offense has relegated them to defend a short field on many occasions, but in turn this unit has not been able to take the ball away themselves. The knock on Ryan’s defenses is that while they are very aggressive and very multiple, they just don’t translate into many takeaways; New Orleans only forced nineteen turnovers in 2013 (29th overall), and has thus far only produced seven in 2014 (26th overall). The Pass-Rush hasn’t been terrible, amassing thirteen sacks in seven games, it’s just that the Secondary hasn’t been able to capitalize on said pressure. Losing prized Free Agent Acquisition Jairus Byrd was a huge blow to the defense; the three-time Pro Bowl Safety reeled in 22 interceptions in five years with the Bills, but has since landed on Injured Reserve with a torn ACL suffered in Week four at Dallas.
Meanwhile, after a surprising 12-4 campaign resulting in their first NFC South Championship since 2008, the Panthers (3-4-1) have been a mess this season thanks in large part to a laundry list of injuries and a litany of offseason defections. Since starting the season 2-0, Ron Rivera’s charges have since lost four out of their last six games, with a rare 37-37 tie at Cincinnati thrown into the mix. It began in the Summer, when Management curiously let virtually every Receiver of note leave in Free Agency, leaving Cam Newton without four of his top five weapons in the passing game. Coupled with the sudden retirement of Left Tackle Jordan Gross, and the Panthers’ offense looked like a completely different group than it’s predecessor virtually overnight. Compounding problems is the plethora of injuries that have decimated the Backfield; with Mike Tolbert (knee) on Injured Reserve, and DeAngelo Williams missing the last five games with a sprained ankle, the only healthy Tailback has been injury-prone Jonathan Stewart,who has missed twenty games over the past three years. As a result, the running game has fallen off the map, going from eleventh in 2013 (126.6) to sixth-worst in 2014 (92.9) on just 3.5 yards per carry (29th overall).
So what exactly does all this mean for Newton, who took major steps towards reaching his limitless potential last season? A major factor in the fourth-year veteran’s success was the fact that with a better supporting cast, he didn’t have to do everything, meaning that he could maximize his play under Center. A prolific rusher coming out of college, Newton rushed for 1,447 yards (45.2 yards/game) and 22 touchdowns in his first two years in the league, but saw that number diminish to 36.6 yards on 6.9 carries, one fewer attempt than he had averaged the previous season. The former No. One Pick looked to run less, choosing instead to pick his opponents apart from the pocket, where he posted career-highs in Completion Percentage (61.7%), Touchdown Percentage (5.1%), Passer Rating (88.8), and Total QBR (56.17). However, with his teammates in the Backfield on the mend, Newton has had to once again shoulder the brunt of the offense, accounting for 1,857 yards and nine touchdowns, or in other words a staggering 79.8% of the offense, highest of any Quarterback in the league. And that is not necessarily a good thing for the Panthers, who have averaged 20.9 points (24th overall) on 351.3 yards (24th overall), including 258.4 courtesy of the pass (17th overall) on just 6.3 net yards per attempt (23rd overall). Veteran Tight End Greg Olsen and Rookie Wide Receiver Kelvin Benjamin have been solid in support, accounting for 80 receptions for 1,080 yards and ten touchdowns, but this offense still lacks the requisite weapons to threaten defenses consistently.
However, arguably the biggest problem in Carolina is their defense, which was dominant at times in 2013. Ron Rivera’s defense ranked second in the league in points allowed (15.1), yards allowed (301.2), and rushing yards allowed (86.9) last year, on the strength of an outstanding Front Seven, and an opportunistic Secondary. With Luke Kuechly, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and Greg Hardy, the NFC’s sack-leader (15.0), returning this unit had the look of a a great one for years to come. Oh, what a difference a year makes.2014 hasn’t been nearly as kind to the Panthers defense, which has allowed 26.0 points (25th overall) on 378.6 yards (21st overall), including 243.3 versus the pass (18th overall) on 6.6 net yards per attempt (17th overall), and another 135.3 versus the rush (28th overall) on an NFL-worst 5.2 yards per carry. So what in the name of Sam Mills has happened in Carolina? Again, like the offense, this unit was hit hard in Free Agency as starting Defensive Backs Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn both departed for greener pastures, while Hardy, after being franchised in the offseason, was indefinitely suspended with pay after a lingering Domestic Violence Case carried over from the Summer. Injuries to the likes of Defensive Tackle Kawann Short (ankle) and Safety Thomas DeCoud (shoulder) has further hamstrung this unit.