The Panthers head to New Orleans on Sunday for an NFC South division clash against the Saints. Here are five things to watch.
Can the Panthers D end its turnover drought?
Carolina may rank third in the league in interceptions (12) and fourth in total takeaways (19), but it's been a while since we've seen the Panthers D force a turnover. To be exact, it's been since safety Tre Boston's fourth quarter interception in Week 9 against the Titans.
Every week players and coaches emphasize how important winning the turnover battle is to a team's success, and the Panthers have been living proof during this two-week drought. In the past two games, the Panthers offense has given the ball away six times, compared to the zero takeaways.
Breaking the streak won't be an easy task this week against the Saints and quarterback Drew Brees.
"He's good with the ball. He's always been a guy throughout the years that's protected the ball really well," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "I think he understands where he's going with the ball early in the down, and oftentimes pre-snap, so making a play on the ball whether it's an interception is very difficult. It's difficult to get after him rushing-wise, too, because the ball gets out so quick."
The Saints have only turned the ball over a league-low six times this year, and just three of those have been interceptions by Brees.
"There's a reason they historically score a lot of points, because they don't give the ball away," Kuechly said. "There's still some opportunities we have, get guys to the ball, punch at the ball, try to get pressure, and sometimes that gives you a good opportunity."
Another week, another wideout
It's the same story every week for No. 1 cornerback James Bradberry. When you're a defensive back in the NFC South, the competition never gets easier.
This week, Bradberry will be locked on to Saints' superstar wide receiver Michael Thomas, the league leader in targets, receptions and yards. So far Thomas has tallied up 94 catches for 1,141 yards and five touchdowns on the year. Oh, and there are still six games left.
"They do a good job of finding ways to get him the rock, whether it's lining him up at one, two, three, motioning him to get guys off of him in the press," Boston said. "They find ways to get Michael Thomas the ball. For us, we've got a guy in James Bradberry who we trust every time with the guys in our conference. So, for us it's all about those guys winning their matchups and us doing their job on the back end."
Last week, the Panthers had trouble keeping Atlanta's receiving duo in check, as Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley combined for 14 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown. With Thomas being the Saints primary target at wide receiver, that should let the Panthers secondary focus plenty of attention on him, but that's not to say there aren't other weapons to worry about, too.
"What Coach (Sean) Payton does is he really tasks you," head coach Ron Rivera said. "He has a plan. He's got more than one weapon. If you focus strictly on (Thomas), he's got (running back) Alvin Kamara, he's got (wide receiver) Teddy Ginn, he's got a couple of tight ends that catch the ball and guys that can get vertical very quickly. You have to be careful and you have to pick your opportunities to do certain things against them."
Kamara vs. CMC
Speaking of Kamara… while we won't be seeing him and Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey go head to head literally (Can you imagine?), it's impossible to talk Panthers-Saints without comparing the two.
Kamara has 472 yards and one touchdown on the ground this season, plus another touchdown and 373 yards on 51 receptions. McCaffrey, on the other hand, leads the NFL in rushing yards (1,059) and is tied for first in rushing touchdowns (11), in addition to 59 catches for 517 yards and three touchdowns. However, it's their skillsets more so than their statistics that draw comparisons between the two.
"He's almost like 22 here," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy explained. "'He can't run between the tackles, likes to stay on the outside' or whatever, but anybody who knows football, you watch Alvin Kamara, he don't go down on the first hit and it's hard to bring him to the ground."
"He's like another McCaffrey," Boston added. "They're going to try to get the ball out to him as much as possible. He's one of the best running backs in the league, great on contact. You know what he's going to do with the ball in his hands."
McCaffrey definitely appreciates the comparisons, because he's a big fan of Kamara, too.
"I think he's obviously a heck of a back," McCaffrey said. "I have a lot of fun watching him on tape. He's so dynamic and a lot of the stuff that he's able to do is pretty impressive, so I respect his game a lot."
On the defensive side of the locker room, players repeatedly emphasized one major key to stopping Kamara: prevent the leaky yardage.
Kamara is known for being slippery, and that allows him to fall forward with nearly every tackle, and those yards can add up. The way to stop that is simple – more hats to the ball.
"The thing about him is, he might not get 60 yards each play," Boston explained. "But those five, six falling forward do add up, so we've got to make sure we stop that."
Winning on third down
Third downs haven't exactly been kind to the Panthers this season – on either side of the ball.
The Panthers third down efficiency on offense ranks 28th in the league, only converting 30.7 percent of third downs. On defense things aren't much better. The Panthers rank 22nd in the NFL, allowing opposing offenses to convert 41.4 percent of their third downs.
Part of the reason the Panthers have struggled so much on third down, at least offensively, is due to their performance on first and second down that leads to third-and-long scenarios.
"It's all connected," tight end Greg Olsen said. "Obviously, third-and-shorts statistically are a lot easier to convert than third-and-long. Part of that is success of first down, part of that is not having penalties, part of that is not having negative plays. Looking at third down specifically is a lot deeper than just looking at that one particular play."
One way to keep the offense from getting in third-and-long scenarios will be by slowing down Saints defensive end Cam Jordan. For the most part, the Panthers have done a good job of that recently. In the last six matchups against the Saints, Jordan has recorded just one sack. This year though, Jordan has been on a tear, already racked up 9.5 sacks (6th). After giving up five sacks last week to the Falcons, the Panthers are looking to keep quarterback Kyle Allen upright this week.
For comparison, the Saints rank ninth in third down efficiency on offense (44.2 percent) and fifth on defense (33.6 percent). Because the Saints D has been so dominant getting off the field on third down, it's also led to significant advantages in time of possession.
Last week against the Bucs, New Orleans nearly doubled Tampa Bay in time of possession, leading 37 minutes to 23 minutes. If the Panthers hope to upset the Saints, they'll need to extend drives and try to balance out the clock.
Home field advantage
The Panthers started the season as road warriors, winning each of their first three away games. Since then, though, Carolina has dropped its last two road contests. Part of that is due to increased competition, but the venue can also play a role in the challenge.
This week will have the Panthers facing an elite opponent and playing in a hostile environment. Since the 2017 season, the Saints are 17-4 in the Superdome.
So, what is it that makes it such a tough place to play? McCoy has a theory.
"The NFL is a game in which you've got to bring your own energy," McCoy said. "College football, they have bands and student sections and all this other stuff. NFL's not like that. You've just got to love what you do, bring your own energy, feed off each other.
"Well, New Orleans is a place where the music, the crowd, it's one of those places where you can feed off the energy in the dome. Most places in the NFL are not like that, but New Orleans is."
Obviously, the cheers and boos benefit the Saints, but that doesn't mean it can't energize the visiting teams, too.
"It's my favorite road place to play," McCoy said. "It gets hype in there and I love it."
In order for the Panthers to return from New Orleans victorious, they'll need to silence the crowd early and get out to a fast start. Since 2016, Carolina is 26-6 when leading at half, but only 2-19 when trailing at the half. This year, that trend has continued, and the Panthers are a perfect 5-0 when leading at the break versus 0-5 when behind.
The Panthers trail the all-time series against the Saints, 25-26. Carolina has played New Orleans more than any other team in its history.