Carolina Panthers

Three to watch: Panthers need a big play early against beleaguered Saints

Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman (24) intercepted a pass in the end zone intended for New Orleans Saints receiver Brandin Cooks (10) to save a September game in Charlotte, but might not see much of Cooks on Sunday.
Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman (24) intercepted a pass in the end zone intended for New Orleans Saints receiver Brandin Cooks (10) to save a September game in Charlotte, but might not see much of Cooks on Sunday. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Joseph Person’s three things to watch in Sunday’s Carolina Panthers game at New Orleans:

Who dat going to quiet the crowd?

The Panthers stunned the Who Dat faithful in the Superdome last season by storming to a 17-0 first-quarter lead, thanks in large part to turnovers on back-to-back offensive snaps by the Saints. Last week Carolina used an early defensive touchdown by safety Kurt Coleman to quiet Dallas fans on Thanksgiving Day. A similar start would help be helpful Sunday, when Saints fans will have an extra three hours to, um, pre-hydrate before the 4:25 p.m. kickoff. A couple of big plays by Cam Newton could turn the crowd against the Saints’ beleaguered defense.

Lot of chefs needed vs. Cooks

Josh Norman showed again why he’s the league’s top cover corner by holding Dez Bryant to one catch for 6 yards. But Norman won’t be matched exclusively against Brandin Cooks, who lines up primarily in the slot. Five of Cooks’ seven catches in the first meeting came against Carolina’s nickel backs or linebackers. That means Colin Jones and the newly acquired Cortland Finnegan will have to be alert at nickel. Finnegan played mostly outside during his first nine seasons, and it’s unclear how much he’ll play after less than a week in the system. Cooks has elite speed and leads the Saints with six TDs.

Don’t sleep on Marcus Murphy

The Panthers’ special teams have improved this season, but they’ve given up touchdowns on a punt return and kickoff return. The punt runback came in Week 3 against New Orleans when Brad Nortman outkicked his coverage, allowing rookie Marcus Murphy to find a seam for a 74-yard score. The Panthers worked out three punters the following week as a sort of warning shot for Nortman, who has been much better on his directional kicks since. Murphy, a seventh-round pick from Missouri, fumbled punts in back-to-back games in November, losing one of them in an overtime defeat at Tennessee.

Panthers at Saints

Where:

Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

When:

Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

Watch:

FOX (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews)

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