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Five Things to Watch: Panthers at Saints

1. IT BEGINS WITH BREES: Safety Roman Harper went up against quarterback Drew Brees in Saints practice for eight years, so surely he picked up a few ideas as to how to get the future Hall of Famer off his game.

There is no secret formula, Harper says, but there is a simple formula – simple in concept but not in execution.

"We need to affect Drew early with the pass rush and some different schemes," Harper said. "You're not going to be able to fool him a lot with coverages and such, so we need to affect him by getting to him and throwing him off. You can't allow him to step up in the pocket."

Brees saw his streak of 45 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass end last week in Houston, but despite that and a three-game slide for the Saints, he still ranks third in the NFL with 320 passing yards per game. He'll also be fired up to face the Panthers after watching the teams' first meeting in Week 3 because of a shoulder injury – the only time he's missed a game due to injury since high school.

2. ON THEIR MARK: Running back Mark Ingram isn't having a bad year, but the Saints usually aren't successful if Ingram has a bad day.

"He runs hard. He's strong. He's a powerful guy between the tackles," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "Mark Ingram is a guy that doesn't get enough credit."

How's this for credit? New Orleans is 3-1 this season when Ingram rushes for more than 75 yards but 1-6 when he doesn't. Carolina, while winning the rivals' last two meetings, has held Ingram to a total of 93 yards. In the Saints' last victory over Carolina, Ingram went for an even 100.

The Panthers are playing ridiculously strong run defense right now, holding their last two opponents to a total of 45 yards on the ground – the best two-game stretch in franchise history.

"Everybody is just doing their job, doing their one-eleventh, being where they're supposed to be and playing unselfish," defensive tackle Star Lotulelei said. "There were a couple of games earlier where runners have gotten more yards, but it has definitely improved."

3. BACK TO BREES: There are any number of ways the Panthers defense can get to Brees, and head coach Ron Rivera says one of the principle ones actually involves Ingram.

"If you can slow run games down, you can really pin your ears back," Rivera said. "We've been getting a lot of quarterback hits in second-and-long situations, whether we're bringing pressure or just rushing four guys. Putting teams in second-and-longs is a big benefit to a pass rush."

The Panthers are tied for third in the NFL with 33 sacks but will be without one of their contributors Sunday in Mario Addison. The beauty of this pass rush, though, is that no individual ranks in the top 20 in the league.

"We're getting it from all over," Rivera said. "If you start doubling one side, the other side is picking it up. We have a mix of guys, and you also have to credit (defensive coordinator) Sean (McDermott) for designing the pressures that we've been using."

4. FINNEGAN A FACTOR? The Panthers signed former Pro Bowl cornerback Cortland Finnegan this week and plan to see what the veteran of nine NFL seasons can bring after being out of football since 2014.

"The biggest question will be his football shape more than anything else," Rivera said. "He did a nice job with his conditioning and staying in shape while he was out."

Rivera also has been pleased with how Finnegan has picked up the initial role the Panthers have in mind for him as a nickel corner. How much he'll contribute Sunday – and down the line with outside corner Charles Tillman (knee) set to miss his third consecutive game – remains to be seen.

"They've talked about what they think the situations could be to give him the opportunity for him to get on the field and get his feet wet," Rivera said. "Eventually, he may work himself into the outside, but right now we're getting him to focus on the inside."

5. UNFAMILIAR FOE? The Panthers have put up 68 points over their last two meetings with the Saints, but that was with Rob Ryan leading New Orleans' defense. Prior to the Saints' last game, they promoted former Raiders head coach Dennis Allen from defensive assistant to the coordinator role.

"It can become tricky because they're in the transition stage of changing coordinators, and that presents a big question mark for us. But we can't let that deter us," quarterback Cam Newton said. "We have to understand what they're trying to do and attack them."

The Saints did move out of last place in total defense last week against the Texans (they're now allowing one less yard than the Giants), but they're still the only NFL team allowing 30-plus points per game.

"It's going to be a little different because of their change in coordinators, but for the most part it will be the same," right guard Trai Turner said. "We'll see a physical front and some cornerbacks that cover.

"We just have to go out and play our game, get into a rhythm, get into a groove."

View the top photos of Panthers vs. Saints by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.

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