New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees carved a gaping hole into the heart of the Panthers’ defense Sunday – as well as the “best of” talk that was coming from the Carolina locker room last week.
After allowing only a pair of field goals in their first two games, against San Francisco and Buffalo, the Panthers faced a grown-up offense directed by a future Hall of Famer in Week 3 at Bank of America Stadium.
The results were ugly – and a bit disconcerting for a defense that has road dates against Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford coming up next.
The Saints had their way with the NFL’s top-ranked defense, running up 362 yards in a 34-13 win that evoked memories of Brees’ big day against an overmatched Panthers defense last season in New Orleans.
But this year was supposed to be different. The Panthers’ starting corners were a year older and the pass rush a little saltier with the arrival of Julius Peppers, who said after the Bills’ win that this was the best defense he’s been a part of.
Peppers might need to walk that back a bit.
The Panthers (2-1) failed to rattle Brees, who completed 22 of 29 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns, and was sacked only once.
After allowing a total of 23 first downs to San Francisco and Buffalo, the Panthers yielded 21 to their division rivals Sunday.
“You let up 30 points and have a bunch of big plays. They ran the ball when they wanted to run it. They threw when they wanted to throw it,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “We played good the first few weeks. But that’s what makes this game so interesting is it doesn’t matter what you do the week before. It matters what you do on the day of the game.”
Or what you don’t do, which in the Panthers’ case was cover Michael Thomas.
Thomas, who caught 92 passes for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie last season, continually found the soft spots in the Panthers’ zone coverage. Thomas caught seven passes for 87 yards and a touchdown – a 5-yarder that gave the Saints (1-2) a 7-3 lead they never relinquished.
The Saints’ success prompted Panthers coach Ron Rivera to wonder whether Steve Wilks was mixing up his looks enough in his third game as defensive coordinator.
“I think there’s some things we have to take a look at. Are we almost predictable? Did they anticipate that?” Rivera said. “We’ll self-scout ourselves and see exactly what happened.”
Panthers’ players thought the problem was in the execution more so than Wilks’ scheme, which is not unlike what Sean McDermott ran for six seasons before becoming the Bills’ coach.
“I wouldn’t say they knew what we were in,” nickel corner Captain Munnerlyn said. “They just did a good job of finding the weak spots and they made plays.”
Wilks brought several blitzes at Brees, who did a good job of defeating them by flipping the ball to his running backs before the rush reached him. Defensive end Mario Addison had the Panthers’ lone sack on Brees, who was knocked down only three other times.
Peppers, who collected two sacks against the Bills, didn’t show up anywhere on the defensive stat sheet against the Saints.
“(Brees) gets the ball out so quick and he sees stuff easily. He’s been around a long time. He’s seen just about every blitz you can throw at him,” Kuechly said. “We were able to get after him a few times. But when the ball comes out that quick, it’s hard to get home.”
The Panthers also failed to take the ball away from the Saints. Kuechly had the best shot at a turnover when he dropped a would-be interception on the Saints’ side of the 50.
“He threw it right to me,” Kuechly said. “I’ve got to catch it and put the offense in position to score.”
It’s only going to get tougher for Wilks, Kuechly and Co. The Panthers visit New England next week for the first time in eight years.
The Patriots looked to be in postseason form in a 36-33 win against Houston on Sunday.
Brady threw for 378 yards and five touchdowns. Former Saints wideout Brandin Cooks caught five passes for 131 and two scores, while tight end Rob Gronkowski pulled down eight catches for 189 yards and a TD.
The Panthers won’t have a lot of time for that self-scouting Rivera wants to do.
“There’s a lot of good quarterbacks on our schedule coming up. We’ve got Tom Brady up this week and everybody knows about him,” Kuechly said. “We all have a tremendous amount of respect for him. It’s Tom Brady, and that’s all you’ve got to really say about him.”