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Five things to watch against the Saints: Getting Adam Thielen going

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CHARLOTTE — The Panthers have now had a week to gather themselves after a midseason coaching change and are about to embark on their third-straight road game Sunday in New Orleans. 

The 5-7 Saints are still in the hunt in a messy NFC South race, while the Panthers are coming in at 1-11 and hoping to spoil their rivals' chances.

Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Caesars Superdome. Fans can check out more information on how to watch and listen here.

Here are five things to watch for during the game:

Adam Thielen

Rekindling holiday Thielens

The Panthers have been engaged in a year-long struggle to create offense, and lately, one of the most consistent parts has been missing. 

Veteran wideout Adam Thielen has gone quiet of late, with just four catches for 27 yards in the last two games against the Titans and the Bucs. 

That's noticeable because he was one of the most productive pass-catchers in the league prior to that, with 80 catches for 753 yards and four touchdowns this season. 

It's not that the 33-year-old Thielen is doing anything wrong, but opponents have made a deliberate effort to keep him out of the mix. Playing in the slot, the simple nature of traffic congestion makes it easier to do, and teams have been intentional about not letting him be the guy that beats them.

Jonathan Mingo has made more plays to compensate in recent weeks, and DJ Chark Jr. was more involved in Tampa, which they have to have if they're going to move the ball, but interim coach Chris Tabor said they have to work to get Thielen into better spots to counter the opponents game-planning him out of the mix.

"Well, I think that has a lot to do with it," Tabor said. "He's obviously a really good football player. He's having a heck of a year.

"People know where he's at, and, and I think what you see now is, is other guys need to continue to step up, you know, Mingo making some plays. Chark made a nice play last week. So, those guys should be excited for their opportunity if the ball comes their way because of what's going on with Adam."

Now they know

The Panthers had little clarity on their opponent this week, but now they know that quarterback Derek Carr will be under center for the Saints this week. 

Carr cleared the concussion protocol Friday, after suffering his second concussion in as many weeks last week. He was also listed with rib and right shoulder issues on the injury report. Coupled with versatile Taysom Hill not practicing all week with foot and left hand injuries (he's officially questionable), there was a lot of unknown about the Saints offense. Tabor said earlier in the week they were planning for the entire system since the Saints have so many playmakers, minimizing the difference between Carr and backup Jameis Winston.

"When you prepare for both guys at the same time, really, you're preparing for their offense because of all the weapons that they have, regardless of who the trigger guy is," Tabor said. "Got a lot of respect for both of them."

Carr's an efficient and careful passer, but the Saints have struggled in the red zone this year, 26th in the league in scoring touchdowns inside the 20 (with 21 touchdowns in 44 chances. For comparison, the Panthers are 18th in the league, with 15 touchdowns in 28 trips to the red zone).

All hands on deck up front

The Panthers defensive line is thin this week, with veteran end DeShawn Williams out with a knee injury

Anytime you're without a regular starter, that's not ideal, but the Panthers have patched that group together this year in a remarkable way, considering the cast of characters involved. 

Derrick Brown is simply one of the best players in the league at his position and has been throwing guys out of the club all year. While interior linemen's stats are never flashy based on the job description, he has 64 tackles this year (third in the NFL among defensive linemen). He is one of just four players in the league with at least 60 tackles, five tackles for a loss, and 10 or more quarterback hits on the season. In short, he's been a beast. 

And former Saints lineman Shy Tuttle has been solid in his own right, providing stability next to Brown in the rotation. 

But after that, the line is made of an odd lot of parts. LaBryan Ray and Nick Thurman were signed after a Spartanburg tryout of street free agents during training camp. Those workouts are honestly designed to see if they can find reliable camp bodies, but those two have been solid contributors all year. 

And with the addition of practice squad defensive end Chris Wormley (expected to be elevated today to fill Williams' spot), they've found a solid rotation. Those three have the kind of large frames you're looking for to play a 3-4, and they've played solidly for a group of guys pieced together in the way they have.

Running the ball well

In a search for some degree of normal, the Panthers have returned to running more, and Chuba Hubbard has made it worthwhile. 

He's coming off a career-high 25 carries last week in Tampa and had 104 yards and two touchdowns as a result. It was just the second time all season the Bucs had allowed a 100-yard rusher. 

It was the first 100-yard rushing game for the Panthers this year and the first time in his career Hubbard has gone back-to-back weeks with a rushing touchdown.

Many things have gone poorly for the Panthers with the ball this year, but Hubbard has proven he can be trusted with an increased workload, and he runs with physicality and effort each week. 

A year ago, he was the complement to D'Onta Foreman, but he's clearly the lead back now, and he's producing.

Something resembling stability

Tabor said Friday the plan was to start the same group of guards this week, with veteran Justin McCray on the left and undrafted rookie Nash Jensen on the right. 

The Panthers have used six different left guards this season and seven different right guards, so change has been the constant. They've started the same line for three weeks in a row on two occasions this season (with Chandler Zavala on the left and now-Titans backup Calvin Throckmorton on the right beginning in late September, and Throckmorton on the left and now-IRed Austin Corbett on the right beginning with the win against the Texans.) But the last three weeks, they've started a different five every week. 

That's also alarming because left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, right tackle Taylor Moton, and center Bradley Bozeman have started every game this year and played every snap. Bozeman is listed as questionable on the injury report this week with an ankle issue, which limited his practice time.

View photos from the Panthers' practice as the team prepares to take on the New Orleans Saints.

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