Tale Of The Tape: New Orleans Saints At Carolina Panthers
- QuarterbackThis is the kind of game that usually brings out the best in Drew Brees. His intelligence, courage and accuracy makes him an ideal quarterback in one of the biggest games of the year. Brees is not going to become unnerved playing on the road against a ferocious defense. His ability to hang in the pocket and buy time before throwing gives him an excellent chance to succeed.The Panthers have climbed the NFL ladder this season and they are clearly one of the most powerful teams in the league. Cam Newton has made tremendous progress and is ready to take his place among the game’s elite. However, he must succeed in the biggest games to get there, and this is the Panthers’ biggest game of the season.
- OffenseThe Saints have not gotten the production from their ground game that they wanted to, but they will give Pierre Thomas an opportunity to show what he can do to knock the Panthers off stride. Tight end Jimmy Graham is clearly the best at his position in the league – especially with Rob Gronkowski out – and he is a difference maker. Marques Colston will make the tough catch on third down.The Panthers have quite a bit of balance thanks to the running of DeAngelo Williams and the short-yardage contributions of Mike Tolbert. Steve Smith can be the difference maker because he comes up big when it matters and he inspires his teammates to leave it on the field. Greg Olsen is one of the most under-appreciated tight ends in the league. Ted Ginn Jr. has gamebreaking speed.
- DefenseThe Saints have played very well on defense this season, and when you consider how poorly they played last year, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan deserves full credit. He has built an aggressive defense that is almost never out of position. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton is a sharp player and an excellent tackler who rarely misses. Defensive end Cameron Jordan is a dominant pass rusher.The Panthers have the second-ranked defense in the league – behind the Seattle Seahawks – and they are fast, aggressive and nasty. If they get a chance to punish Brees or Graham, they will. Start off with a pass rush that features speed and power, and you understand how Ron Rivera has gotten this unit to jump-start the team. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is a top-level tackler and is also solid in coverage.
- Special TeamsThe Saints have done a decent job in punt and kickoff coverage this season, but they really haven’t gotten much of a contribution from return specialist Darren Sproles. Placekicker Garrett Hartley has a strong leg but he has not been consistent in his FG kicking this year.The Panthers have very consistent and disciplined special-teams coverage units. They also have one of the league’s fastest players in Ginn, who could break a long one at any time. Rivera is quite pleased with Graham Gano, who has done an exceptional job on long FG attempts this season.
After losing in New Orleans in Week 14, the Panthers have to win this game. They should be ready to play their most crucial game of the season and if Newton can maintain his poise, the Panthers should be able to defend their homefield. -Steve Silverman, CBS Local Sports contributor