At certain points during their first meeting with the Carolina Panthers, the New Orleans Saints jumped into a hurry-up offense and tried to catch the Carolina defense off-guard by moving quickly.
Too quickly in at least one case, according to the Panthers.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera sent video to the league office of a key early play from the Week 3 matchup in which he believed the Saints weren’t set offensively. And Rivera plans to remind officials before Sunday’s 4:25 p.m. rematch in New Orleans to make sure Saints players aren’t moving when quarterback Drew Brees goes to a quick count.
But Rivera said his defense also has to do a better job of being ready when Brees tries to catch the Panthers on their heels.
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“When you look at what they do, they do some very dynamic things on the offensive side and we’ve got to be ready to play, to handle what they do,” Rivera said Thursday. “There’s a lot of shifts, a lot of motions that they do. And there’s a lot of formation recognition that helps you. If you’re going to do anything in certain situations, you’ve got to be ready to do it.”
During the Saints’ first possession in their 34-13 victory in Charlotte, Brees called for a quick shotgun snap on third-and-8 when a couple of Panthers’ players, including middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, were still getting lined up.
Brees hit a wide-open Michael Thomas in the middle of the field for 16 yards and a first down. The Saints went on to score a touchdown on the drive to take a 7-3 lead and never trailed again.
But the Panthers (8-3) thought at least one of the Saints’ receivers was rocking in his stance when the ball was snapped, and let the NFL know a couple days later.
Rivera declined to say Thursday what the league’s response was.
Rivera said the Panthers “just want to make sure everything’s set and everyone’s ready to roll.”
Trying to play quickly is nothing new for Brees, the 17-year veteran, and the rest of the Saints’ offense.
But several Panthers’ defensive players say they did a poor job keeping up the pace in the September loss to New Orleans, and promised to be better equipped for it this week.
“Knowing that we’re an attack-oriented defense, they know we’re going to be trying to play downhill and we’re going to try to play aggressive. So one thing they can do – and that they did in the first game effectively – was catch us off guard,” cornerback Daryl Worley said.
“Not allow us to get lined up. Not allow us to get into our blitzes. Not allow us to get set. That’s one thing we’ve got to be able to execute better and be able to get ready to play.”
Worley said the Saints hit several big plays after hustling to the line and getting the ball snapped before the Panthers had set their defense.
Panthers veteran linebacker Thomas Davis says Brees especially likes to move quickly on third down.
“They do a really good job, when they get into third-down situations, quick-counting (and) keeping the defense off-balance,” Davis said. “As a defense, whenever the center’s hand’s on the ball, we’ve got to be ready to go.”
The Saints (8-3) were 6-of-12 on third down in the Week 3 game. That tied for the second-highest conversion rate allowed by the Panthers this season.
New Orleans finished with 21 first downs and rang up 362 total yards, the third-most surrendered by Carolina.
One thing working in the Panthers’ favor is they don’t do a lot of situational substituting. Outside linebacker Shaq Thompson often stays on the field and shifts to a “big nickel” role on obvious passing downs.
“That helps. We’re interchanging,” Thompson said. “That way we don’t get caught on the field with 12 or get caught on the field with 10.”
But it’s not only about having the right number of defenders on the field for the Panthers. It’s about getting in position ahead of the snap, including in situations when defensive coordinator Steve Wilks wants to blitz.
“They like to change up their snap count and they like to go no-huddle. They like to go fast, quick, get the ball out. That’s what their offense does. That’s what they’re good at,” Thompson said.
“We’re just going to be prepared for it and we know how they attacked us these last couple times, especially this last game.”