With two losses in as many weeks, Matt Rhule and the Carolina Panthers look to right the ship against the 1-1 New Orleans Saints. How will these squads match up in Week Three?
Can The Panthers Turn It Around In Week Three?
The Carolina Panthers offensive line left a lot to be desired in Rutherford, New Jersey. This group is incredibly young, with rookie left tackle Ickem Ekwonu lined up beside second-year guard Brady Christensen. With right tackle Taylor Moton appearing on the injury list and right guard Austin Corbett struggling, there is some work to do before becoming a cohesive, effective unit. Snapping the ball is Pat Elflein who, despite high marks from Pro Football Focus, was hit-or-miss–a few pancakes can help fans look the other way on missed assignments.
Overall, this position group was serviceable against the Giants’ front four in pass protection. They weren’t a brick wall, plus New York’s top-five pick Kayvon Thibodeaux was out with injury. This week they’ll face a two-headed monster in edge rushers Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport. With a feature back like Christian McCaffrey, opening holes and knowing the Xs and Os is paramount. Run blocking was filled with missed assignments and mental mistakes last week that this squad needs to figure out, fast.
Throwing the football has been ugly so far, with Mayfield only completing 30 passes in 2022. The playmakers that surround the fifth-year veteran give him no excuses for his lackluster performance. There is a reason GM Scott Fitterer gave DJ Moore a new deal exceeding $60 million—Baker needs to trust his number one option. Several times on Sunday, Moore had a step on his man, and Mayfield either didn’t see him or threw an inaccurate ball.
Training camp standout receiver Shi Smith has been given opportunities as a Panther but hasn’t quite cemented himself as the team’s third option. Crucial drops on late downs and red-zone plays have cooled expectations. New arrival Rashard Higgins, who previously caught passes from Mayfield in Cleveland, will get a chance to show out this week against a tough New Orleans secondary.
How Can The Saints Deal Damage?
It’s no secret that passing the ball has been Carolina’s kryptonite so far this season and the Saints’ secondary won’t make it easy. Tenacious cornerback Marshon Lattimore is an athletic player with sticky coverage and will likely shadow Moore for most of the contest. Safeties Marcus Maye and Tyrann Mathieu are among the best duos in the NFL, giving the Saints a lot of flexibility in terms of the play call. They can patrol the deep middle and fly up the field for run support. If the Saints come out in man coverage, expect to see Mayfield move the chains with his legs.
Getting after the quarterback has been the Saints calling card in years past and will give our tackles headaches. Jordan and Davenport combined for more than 20 sacks in 2021 and, with little success, last week, are ready to go in this divisional match-up. Panthers coaches have utilized blocking tight end Ian Thomas in 11-personnel packages to help out Ekwonu while he works through rookie growing pains, but as Myles Garret showed, a simple chip on All-Pro edge rushers won’t solve many problems.
On the offensive side, the Saints have been banged up, with five-time pro-bowler Alvin Kamara sidelined with a rib injury. If active, quarterback Jameis Winston is nursing a slew of injuries himself, most notable being several back fractures. The pass rush will be a deciding factor for both teams and if Carolina can’t protect on offense and bring pressure on the defense, it’ll be a long day. The offensive line has been a strength for the Saints, anchored by rock-solid right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, but the interior is lacking experience. Expect Phil Snow to install stunts and involve linebackers in blitz calls this week, namely recent standout LB Frankie Luvu, who has a league-high four tackles for loss.
Panthers’ cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and Donte Jackson will have their hands full on Sunday, as rookie Chris Olave has picked up where he left off at Ohio State. Complete with explosive speed, quick feet, and soft hands Olave can sell routes downfield, stop on a dime, and make contested catches. His counterpart is All-Pro wideout Michael Thomas, who’s hauled in a trifecta of touchdowns already this year. To make matters worse, Jackson was held to a limited practice Wednesday.
Panthers Game Plan
The key to disrupting this Saints offense, is to make Winston uncomfortable. Confuse him, get him out of the pocket and force him to make plays on the run. Incorporate disguised looks in coverage and make Winston second-guess what he’s seeing. Staying disciplined along the defensive line, setting the edge and keeping contain with Kamara back on the field is the key to success this week.
In game one against the Browns, the Panthers saw a similar style running back in Kareem Hunt. Too often the Browns saw the Panthers in single-high, man coverage and took advantage. Early in the first quarter, Cleveland noticed our cover one look and motioned Hunt out to receiver. Consequently, linebacker Shaq Thompson was forced to follow him out to the numbers and play him man-to-man. This play would have resulted in a Cleveland touchdown with a better-thrown ball. If this happens with Kamara on Sunday, Carolina will find themselves on the wrong end of a lopsided score.
On offense, Ben McAdoo needs to get creative and create mismatches for guys like McCaffrey and Moore. The Panthers use pre-snap motion less than five percent of the time–McAdoo needs to find unique ways to get his playmakers into space.
Continuing to scheme help for Ekwonu should give Mayfield ample time to unload. Combined with improved run defense, the Carolina Panthers can take advantage of the beat-up Saints and find their first win at home in over a year.