3 things the Carolina Panthers must do better to beat the New Orleans Saints

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Of all the weird results that we saw in Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season, one final score stood out above the rest:

New Orleans 38, Green Bay 3.

That one prompted double-takes throughout the league. New Orleans?! In its first game following the Drew Brees era?

And yet new-look New Orleans won by five touchdowns and reduced 2020 NFL Most Valuable Player Aaron Rodgers to a benchwarmer — and a disgruntled one at that — by the fourth quarter.

The Saints, meanwhile — they were gruntled. They were actually ecstatic, as they should have been. New quarterback Jameis Winston threw five TD passes and coach Sean Payton and his staff, as usual, had a terrific game plan.

Or, as Winston put it afterward: “Sean Payton did what Sean Payton does.”

For every Panther fan who saw that Brees was gone and Michael Thomas was out with a foot injury and counted Week 2’s home game against the Saints as a win ... as Lee Corso might say: Not so fast, my friend.

Sunday’s game will be an early tone-setter for the Panthers, who have regularly served as the Saints’ punching bag since that 2015 Super Bowl season. New Orleans is 8-1 in their past nine games against the Panthers, including Saints’ wins of 27-24 and 33-7 last season.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) scores against the Carolina Panthers last October. Although Brees is retired, the Saints still whipped Green Bay, 38-3, in their season opener.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) scores against the Carolina Panthers last October. Although Brees is retired, the Saints still whipped Green Bay, 38-3, in their season opener.

To win this one, Carolina will need a better effort from three particular areas. I’m taking quarterback Sam Darnold out of the equation here, because Carolina won’t win if he plays poorly. Darnold’s play will tilt the scales one way or the other every week. And of course, Christian McCaffrey will need to play well, and there’s little doubt he will.

But the Panthers must also get fine performances from:

Panthers’ offensive line

It wasn’t good enough against the Jets, but the Panthers’ O-line got away with it because Darnold made a number of nice throws under pressure and he had open receivers because, well, the Jets.

The Saints are a lot better — a “great, great, great defense,” as Matt Rhule said Monday.

Panther tight end Dan Arnold has played for the Saints previously and has seen what they do firsthand. “They have that kind of bullying mindset on defense, especially,” Arnold said. “They’re just going to come after you and come after you and throw a lot of different pressures at you and make you think.”

Tight end and third receiver

Speaking of Arnold, the Saints will try to take away McCaffrey first and then wide receivers DJ Moore and Robby Anderson. The Panthers need a big game from tight end Dan Arnold, who wasn’t happy with the way he played in Week 1 (2 catches, 6 yards). Ian Thomas should have scored on a seam route Sunday, but Darnold threw the ball high and Thomas couldn’t make an acrobatic catch.

And rookie wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. (6 targets, 3 catches, 26 yards in Week 1) will get opportunities, too, with all the attention on Moore and Anderson. He needs to convert more of them.

Panthers must stop Alvin Kamara

I’m not worried about the Panthers’ pass rush. As the six sacks in Week 1 showed, it can be elite. But it will only be elite if Alvin Kamara doesn’t rush for 100 yards and the Saints aren’t facing a lot of 3rd-and-2s. The rush defense was excellent in Week 1, allowing only 45 yards, but there was no Kamara coming at the Panthers, either.

Winston, who the Saints are attempting to turn into a successful reclamation project much like the Panthers are with Darnold, can and will make poor decisions on third-and-10.

Witness some of his previous performances against Carolina when he was at Tampa. In 2019, for instance, Carolina intercepted Winston five times and sacked him seven times in Carolina’s 37-26 win over Tampa Bay in London. Winston threw for 400 yards that day, but he also made at least one big mistake every quarter.

If Payton has turned Winston into a controlled, risk-averse passer — those five TD passes against Green Bay came despite Winston throwing for only 148 yards — then the Panthers are in trouble.

Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule greets New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome before a game in October 2020.
Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule greets New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome before a game in October 2020.

Payton has been in New Orleans so long that he’s coached against John Fox, Ron Rivera and now Matt Rhule on the opposing sideline. Payton won a Super Bowl once, got suspended by the NFL for a year once and irritated Panther fans about a million times, mostly because New Orleans was so hard to stop on offense.

Said Rhule: “Good teams do good things and bad teams do bad things. And you can change out some of the key personnel — great players like Michael Thomas and Drew Brees — but Sean Payton over the years has developed a building, an organization that’s completely aligned. They all know what they’re doing. Everybody knows how they play football.”

All of that is true.

But I wonder how well Winston will play if he’s asked to convert a lot of third-and-longs. That’s what the Panthers need to find out. Do that, play better on the offensive line and slow down Kamara and Carolina can win this game.

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