NEW ORLEANS – The Panthers bent but didn't break on defense Sunday against the Saints, and they made their own breaks.
If not for one breakdown, they would have kept the most potent offense in the NFL over the last several seasons completely out of the end zone.
Even so, it wasn't quite enough to break into the win column.
"It's encouraging, but at the end of the day we're 0-4; 0-4 is not encouraging at all," said cornerback Richard Marshall, who collected 11 tackles and forced a fumble. "We all fought hard for each other and tried to get the victory, but unfortunately it didn't happen."
The Saints don't appear to have fully hit their offensive stride – they entered the game averaging 21 points – but they've led the NFL in total offense three of the last four seasons. The Panthers made them look average again, holding them to one touchdown on a third-and-goal conversion and a trio of field goals from 46-year-old John Carney, signed last week by the team.
"The defense has given us a chance three out of four games, but unfortunately they don't get to reap the benefits," head coach John Fox said. "But I thought our effort was outstanding, and hopefully we can bottle that moving forward."
Fox said that defense didn't have a bend-but-don't-break day by happenstance. The defense was designed to guard against back-breaking long plays, an approach that made for an interesting day.
The Saints' longest play from scrimmage went for just 20 yards, though they did pick up 46 yards on a pass interference call against cornerback Chris Gamble to set up their lone touchdown.
On the other hand, the Saints were 8-for-14 on third-down conversions, helping them rack up the second-most first downs (27) ever against the Panthers. New Orleans kept the ball for 38:22 – nearly two-thirds of the game – and the Panthers had the third fewest offensive snaps (47) in franchise history.
Still, because of the lack of long strikes, the Panthers were right there at the end.
"With Drew Brees and that offense, you know they're going to make plays, but when they got down there, we had to hold them to three," Marshall said. "That worked a couple of times, but not enough to get the 'W.' "
It worked because the methodical nature of the Saints' drives gave the Panthers extra shots at creating turnovers, and defensive coordinator Ron Meeks' units typically cash in at some point.
The Saints marched 90 yards on 15 plays on their first drive of the game, possessing the ball for more than eight minutes, but a bone-crunching hit by safety Sherrod Martin – who later left the game with an apparent head injury – caused wide receiver Lance Moore to fumble at the 1-yard line.
Midway through the second quarter, Marshall upended running back Chris Ivory, who lost the ball on the way down at the Panthers' 21-yard line.
Carolina linebacker James Anderson, who paced the team with a career-high 14 tackles, recovered both fumbles.
"Some other guys caused some fumbles, and I just got to the ball," Anderson said. "They came out fast and made a few plays on us, but we kind of settled down."
The Saints' time-consuming drives didn't drain the Panthers defense, which got stronger as the game went along. In the second half, the Saints didn't have nearly as many chances, but they still had just enough to triumph.
"The defense," Martin said, "continued to fight and showed heart."