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Five Things to Watch vs. New Orleans: Focused on execution

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CHARLOTTE – Carolina kicks off three weeks of home games Sunday with its first NFC South matchup of the season.

The New Orleans Saints (1-1) travel to Bank of America Stadium for a 1 p.m. meeting as the Panthers to get their first win of the year, build upon defensive strides, and improve offensive execution in Week 3.

Here are five things to watch for against the Saints.

PANTHERS LOOK TO PRESSURE WINSTON

Saints quarterback Jameis Winston has been sacked 10 times through two games, second-most in the league behind Cincinnati's Joe Burrow, and the Panthers will look to continue to apply pressure against the Saints' 11th-ranked passing offense.

Defensive end Brian Burns came up with two sacks against Giants quarterback Daniel Jones in Week 2, accounting for half of Carolina's four sacks on the season (Matt Ioannidis and Damien Wilson have one each). Burns has sacked Winston once across three career matchups against him.

Winston is also prone to turnovers, throwing three interceptions in the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay last week. He threw two picks to the Panthers in his 2021 start, when the Saints lost 26-7 at Carolina behind Winston's career-low 26.9 passer rating in that game.

Winston's propensity for turnovers could make for some welcome opportunities for Carolina's defense. The Panthers are the only team in the league yet to force a takeaway through the season's first two weeks.

Winston is questionable for Sunday with back and ankle injuries and has been a limited participant at practice throughout the week. If he couldn't go, New Orleans likely would opt for Andy Dalton, who previously started for the Bengals from 2011-2019.

The Panthers are coping with injury concerns on the defensive side, as veteran cornerback Donte Jackson is questionable for Sunday with a hamstring injury sustained at New York. Jackson was limited at Wednesday and Thursday practices but returned as a full participant Friday, and head coach Matt Rhule said he'll be a "game-time" decision.

FACING ALVIN KAMARA – POTENTIALLY

New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara didn't play in the Saints' Week 2 loss to the Buccaneers with a rib injury. Kamara, listed as questionable for Sunday, has been limited throughout the week in practice, but the Saints would want him on the field to provide an offensive boost.

Kamara's stat line shares similarities with Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey. Both are the only players in NFL history to average more than 50 rush yards and more than 40 receiving yards per game in their career. They are also the top two running backs in receiving since 2017, despite McCaffrey missing 23 games between the 2020-2021 seasons.

Kamara had just 46 yards from scrimmage in New Orleans' Week 1 victory over the Falcons. Still, the Saints have gone 0-5 since 2021 in games without Kamara.

SEEKING IMPROVEMENT ON THIRD DOWN

Quarterback Baker Mayfield said Wednesday he shoulders much of the responsibility for Carolina's lackluster offensive production in Weeks 1 and 2. The Panthers are ranked the NFL's 28th in total offense, 30th in passing offense, and 29th in third-down conversion rate.

A lack of third-down efficiency was displayed at New York, particularly in the second half, when the Panthers went 0-for-5 on third down. Overall, the Panthers have converted just 6-of-23 (26.1 percent) of their attempts on third down, stalling out drives and leaving their defense on the field for a majority of the first two games.

Mayfield said keys to improvement on third down would be limiting missed assignments, playing fast, and reacting well to coverages the offense hasn't seen before.

"There's no need to be any more uptight or anxious when it comes to third down," Mayfield said. "We just have to play our own game and go do it."

ROTATING THE RECEIVERS

The Panthers have primarily deployed DJ Moore, Robbie Anderson, and Shi Smith at wideout throughout the first two games, and Rhule said he wants to get more options in the rotation against New Orleans.

Carolina is looking for more production out of the passing game, regardless of personnel decisions. The Panthers stand at 30th in the league in passing offense with 336 yards through two weeks.

An effort to diversify the receiving corps could spell more opportunities for Terrace Marshall Jr., who played six snaps without a target against the Giants. Rashard Higgins has been active without a snap in the first two games, and he has chemistry with Mayfield from their time together in Cleveland. Laviska Shenault Jr. looks to be activated for the first time since joining the Panthers from a trade with Jacksonville last month.

"I think we have to start playing more guys at the receiver position," Rhule said this week. "I think we want those guys out there. They're good players for us. But I think Terrace is coming on. Rashard's a guy we know can play. We just probably need to get those guys on the field more."

RETURN MAN OPTIONS

After Chuba Hubbard dropped two kickoff returns – and lost the first – against the Giants, Rhule said the Panthers would evaluate multiple options in the return game.

Shenault and newly acquired rookie Raheem Blackshear have worked on kickoff returns throughout the week, though they aren't the only options, as Smith and Moore can also return kicks or punts.

Carolina was left to replace veteran return specialist Andre Roberts after he landed on injured reserve with a Week 1 knee injury.

The Panthers trail the all-time series against the Saints, 26-29. Carolina has played New Orleans more than any other team in its history.

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