CHARLOTTE – Two weeks ago a crack appeared in the New Orleans Saints' armor.
The Falcons milked the clock, dominated the run game and got pressure on Saints quarterback Drew Brees as they handed New Orleans a 26-9 loss in Week 10.
Now, a week later and following a sound 34-17 defeat of the Buccaneers, it seems like the Saints have repaired that crack nicely. As the Panthers prepare to head to New Orleans for another NFC South matchup on Sunday, it's time to look at how the Saints were able to get back on track.
Dominating the ground game
A week removed from giving up 143 yards on the ground to Atlanta, the Saints defense returned to its run-stuffing ways against the Bucs, allowing just 36 rushing yards.
For a defense that ranks third in the league in rushing yards allowed per game (85.3), the explosion versus the Falcons was an exception, not the norm. The Saints were so effective in shutting down the Bucs' ground game that Tampa Bay only attempted a season-low eight run plays.
On the flip side, the Saints were able to get things rolling in their rushing attack – totaling 109 yards on the ground against the Bucs. This helped lead them to a 14-minute advantage in total time of possession – a combination the Falcons were able to use against the Saints just a week earlier.
The Panthers recently shored up their rush defense last Sunday against the Falcons, so replicating that success against the Saints would go a long way towards an upset.
The turnover margin
As the Panthers witnessed in Week 6, playing against Bucs' quarterback Jameis Winston means there will be plenty of opportunities for takeaways.
The Saints picked off Winston four times last Sunday, including a 55-yard interception return for a touchdown, while the Bucs were unable to force any turnovers of their own.
Earlier in the year, the Panthers led the NFL in pass defense, but lately, Carolina has struggled a bit against the pass. Still, the team ranks third in interceptions (12), but the defense hasn't been able to get a takeaway since Week 9. As flashy as the defense has looked at times – racking up sacks and takeaways – those big plays have often covered up some of its deficiencies.
Four times this season the Panthers have allowed over 300 yards passing. In three of the four, they have still emerged victorious due to a plus-11 turnover differential. However, the loss to the Falcons is a prime example of what can happen when those weaknesses aren't masked by takeaways.
Keeping Brees safe
In the Saints' loss to the Falcons, Brees was sacked six times and hit another four. Clearly that's not a winning recipe, and the Saints made sure to get it fixed.
Against the Bucs, Brees was only sacked once, with two other hits. Protection like that is what allowed him to throw for 228 yards and three touchdowns.
It also helps when half of those yards can go to one person. Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas hauled in eight catches for 114 yards and a touchdown – marking his sixth game with over 100 receiving yards this season.
The Panthers had trouble containing the Falcons two biggest receiving threats last Sunday, as wide receivers Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones recorded 143 and 91 yards, respectively.
Unlike the Falcons' duo, the Saints' next biggest receiving threat comes out of the backfield in running back Alvin Kamara. With the front seven responsible for Kamara, that should allow the secondary to focus solely on shutting down Thomas.
View photos from Wednesday's practice as Carolina prepares to take on New Orleans in Week 12.