Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly summed up the Carolina Panthers’ defensive game plan vs. New Orleans in five words: “Get guys in Drew’s face.”
Drew would be Saints quarterback Drew Brees, the future Hall of Famer who set an NFL record during the regular season by completing 72 percent of his passes.
Because of the 6-foot Brees’ relatively short stature, opponents generally try to push the interior of the pocket against the Saints so Brees has a hard time stepping up and/or seeing down the field.
That’s easier said than done.
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First, Brees is smart and “shifty,” according to Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short, who says Brees knows how to dip his shoulder or make a fake to get pass-rushers to slip past him.
Plus, the Saints have invested in interior linemen to protect Brees in recent years. They traded tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle to acquire center Max Unger (and a first-round pick) in 2015, drafted left guard Andrus Peat in the first round in ‘15 and acquired right guard Larry Warford in free agency last year.
When a reporter mentioned the Saints had spent some money on interior linemen, Short smiled and said: “Carolina spent some money trying to get those guys to get that (quarterback) off his spot.”
Enter Short, who signed a five-year, $80.5 million contract last offseason to create havoc in opposing backfields.
A scout for an NFC team said this week Short’s play will be critical if the Panthers hope to throw off Brees’ rhythm in the NFC wild-card game Sunday at the Superdome.
Short understands that, too.
“He’s deadly taking that step up,” Short said of Brees. “And that’s one thing we need to take away to get him uncomfortable in that pocket.”
Short (6-3, 315) has two sacks in 10 career games against the Saints, but none in the past two years. In two games vs. New Orleans this season, Short has four tackles but only one hit on Brees.
“It’s tough. You’ve got to face the guys that’s in front of him first,” Short said Thursday. “It’s just breaking through the levels and trying to get him off his spot. Those guys that play up front are pretty good. I respect those guys. And it’s going to take all of us to work together.”
That likely means some A-gap blitzes from linebackers Thomas Davis and Kuechly, who had a hit on Brees in the Saints’ 31-21 victory in New Orleans last month.
“I think when we’ve been successful against these guys has been when he’s not able to have a clear path to seeing down the field and he’s unable to step up. … In the games we haven’t done it as well, he’s been able to be successful,” Kuechly said.
“Over the past few years they’ve gotten a lot better right down the middle and I think Max Unger is a big reason for that. A guy that’s stout, physical, understands the game. And those two guards are good, too.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera says his defense has to find a way to get Brees “off his mark.”
But that’s difficult against a Saints team that allowed only 20 sacks during the regular season, the second fewest in the league.
Part of that is protection, but a big part is Brees’ savviness.
“You try to find a way to limit him. It’s difficult. He’s Drew Brees for a reason. But if you can get guys up in front of him, it helps you a little bit,” Kuechly said.
“If he can’t see down the field, it makes his life more difficult. … But it’s hard. He gets the ball out so fast.”