When Ron Rivera turned on the tape of New Orleans this week, he kept seeing big play after big play by the Saints.
In seven games, the Saints have had 29 plays of 20 or more yards, including six this week against the Packers on Sunday Night Football.
Linebacker Thomas Davis doesn’t have to look any further than Saints quarterback Drew Brees to find out why they’ve been so successful.
“It’s just Drew Brees,” Davis said. “Having a guy like that running the ship, it makes a world of difference.”
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New Orleans brings to Charlotte the second-ranked offense in the NFL to face the 21st-ranked defense. Brees has looked more like his future Hall of Fame self recently, and the Saints offense has seemingly found its rhythm with the running game.
Of the 29 plays of 20-plus yards, seven have come on the ground. By comparison, the Panthers have one 20-plus-yard play this season and they’ve given up seven.
Against the Packers, running back Mark Ingram rushed 24 times for 172 yards as the Saints’ balanced attack crushed Green Bay 44-23.
“That was something we couldn’t do as a team,” Davis said of Ingram’s rushing total against the Packers. “We understand the challenge that’s presented. When you have a team that’s balanced like that, it’s always difficult to stop them.
“But at the end of the day, we know we have to do our job eliminating the run and forcing them into passing situations.”
Among the many things Carolina’s defense did well in a 13-9 loss Sunday against Seattle was containing quarterback Russell Wilson. Until Seattle’s final series, Wilson had three rushes for 15 yards and rarely was able to scramble outside the pocket to extend plays.
That same type of containment will be necessary this week against the 6-foot Brees, who is not the threat to run Wilson is but likes to get out of the pocket for more clear passing lanes.
“In the back end we have to be physical with their receivers and disrupt their timing, their efficiency of their offense. And then we’ve just got to crush the pocket around Drew,” Panthers safety Thomas DeCoud said.
“He’s not your 6-foot-4 quarterback so if we can close the pocket around him, it’ll make it more difficult for him to throw the football.”
In the Saints, Carolina faces a team with perhaps more speed threats than the Panthers have seen all year. The Saints have made up for the loss of running back Darren Sproles by assigning a greater role to pass-catching running back and former Appalachian State standout Travaris Cadet.
The Saints had Kenny Stills as their deep-field threat last season, and he averaged 20 yards per reception in 2013. He has welcomed rookie Brandin Cooks to the receiving corps – the fastest wide receiver at the NFL combine in February.
There’s also tight end Jimmy Graham, who has been hampered by a shoulder injury. His health is trending up, and after the Saints had six plays of 20-plus yards Sunday, so too is New Orleans’ big-play ability.
“They’ve got some guys capable of opening up the field and we know that,” Panthers cornerback Josh Norman said. “When that time comes when they do what they like do, we’ve got to take it away.”