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5 Things to Watch: Taking a look at some kids

5things_week17

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers have two games left to play this season, and even without the promise of the postseason, they've still got some goals.

While a lot of it has happened organically because of injuries and COVID-19, they're trying to get a look at a number of young players as they evaluate their options for the future.

That's part of the plan for Sunday's game against the Saints, as both teams try to patch together lineups out of unconventional parts.

Here's a look at five things to watch in this Week 17 matchup.

HEARING FROM HENDERSON

Cornerback CJ Henderson's not what you'd call much of a talker. His press conferences are generally very brief, when he has them. But the Panthers have been coaxing him out of his shell a bit, at least on the field.

Defensive coordinator Phil Snow said he's been encouraged with the increased reps Henderson has played over the last month, when injuries have forced a bunch of young players onto the field.

With three cornerbacks on injured reserve and Stephon Gilmore out this week, Henderson is the best of a young lot.

"He has a lot of ability, he's big and he'll tackle. My expectation for him and through the next two games is to become a dominant corner. He has the size and speed, and the athleticism to do that. That's how we see him, and hopefully he can develop, and he is what he wants to be."

The former top-10 pick (the Panthers considered him in 2020 before taking defensive tackle Derrick Brown) is someone they need to produce next year, as well as these next two games.

With Donte Jackson and Gilmore slated to be unrestricted free agents this offseason, the makeup of the Panthers secondary is unknown. But Henderson and Jaycee Horn give them a potential pair of young starters with the physical attributes they want, and the chance to grow.

NOT THE SAME OLD SAINTS

The Saints are realizing what it's like to not have a long-term answer at quarterback. And it hasn't been fun.

With the retirement of Drew Brees (and the injury to subsequent starter Jameis Winston), the Saints have struggled to move the ball.

Their offense averages 21.1 points per game and 301.9 yards per game. Both represent the low-water marks of the Sean Payton Era (he was hired in 2006).

From 2006-2020, they averaged 28.1 points per game, and 398.6 yards per game.

They are getting quarterbacks Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian back from the COVID-19 list this week, after rookie Ian Book had to start Monday night's 20-3 loss to the Dolphins. Still, it's a far cry from the offensive excellence Saints fans were able to take for granted over the years.

TAKE IT AWAY

This isn't even particular to Sunday's game; the Panthers know as they look to the future, they need to create more turnovers as a defense.

While their recent trend line hasn't been good (they've allowed 27 or more points in five straight games), they remain second in the league in total defense and passing defense. But they're tied for 23rd with 16 takeaways, something they're hoping to change as they grow.

"We are making progress, but it's not where we want," Snow said. "To be a championship-level defense, we've gotta get more turnovers and create more plays that change the game, and not give them up."

STAYING WELL

Like most of the country, COVID-19 has swept through the Panthers in the last few weeks. While they're hoping to get some players back later on Saturday, they've been extremely short-handed on defense in particular.

The Panthers had to practice on separate fields this week (offense and defense not working together) because of the lack of numbers.

"That's just the world we live in today. We all know COVID is hitting us hard right now," linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. said. "So the next man has to be prepared to step up. And when you're off the field, you've just got to stay as safe as possible so you can avoid missing time. That's all I've been doing, trying to avoid missing time. I've been staying masked up, not even just to play on the field, just for the safety of myself and my family. I just had my young daughter. That's who I think about the most when I'm out and around my teammates. I keep my mask on, and I don't want to catch anything and go back home to her."

Carter said he wasn't much of a social creature anyway, but has made it a priority to keep the circle close lately.

"I'm pretty much a homebody," he said. "I don't spend too much time going out clubbing, things like that. I'm not sure what other guys are doing. But I'm pretty much a guy that comes to the facility, comes to work, and I go right back home. Study some film, play some video games, and that's pretty much all I do. I don't spend much time out giving myself an opportunity to get COVID. I try to stay as safe as possible."

PLAYING SPOILER

The Saints would need to win out and get some help to make the playoffs, as they're currently in the 10th spot in the NFC in hopes of making the seven-team postseason bracket.

At 7-8, they're a game back of the 49ers and Eagles in the final two spots.

The Panthers beat them in Week 2 (when the Saints were also short-handed on the field and among the coaching staff because of COVID), and the Panthers haven't swept them since 2015, when they went 15-1 in Cam Newton's MVP season.

The Saints have won eight of the last 10 meetings between the teams.

BONUS GAMEDAY RECIPE

Get Game Day Ready every week with Harris Teeter, your source for football food and beverages! Enjoy this recipe from Harris Teeter & Bush’s – Big Game Chili

The Panthers trail the all-time series against the Saints, 26-28. Carolina has played New Orleans more than any other team in its history.

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