There’s a lot of hype surrounding the much-anticipated matchup between the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints on Sunday night. Most of the hype is surrounding the battle between New Orleans’ high-octane offense directed by the brilliant technician Drew Brees and the mad scientist Sean Payton and Carolina’s juggernaut defense put together by Ron Rivera and spearheaded by the sensational Luke Kuechly. And while that clash will cause more than its fair share of fireworks, the matchup that will truly decide the fate of the game is on the other side of the coin: Carolina’s methodical offense against the Saints’ rebuilt defense.
Both units were subpar last year with New Orleans being historically bad. New Orleans gave up more yards than any team in NFL history, deficiencies exacerbated by the lack of offensive efficiency in the absence of Payton’s play-calling. Carolina’s offense wasn’t very efficient either, relying on the big play from Cam Newton but ultimately coming up with short drives and crippling turnovers. Now each unit has become the model of reliability with Carolina’s offense leading the league in time of possession and New Orleans playing bend but don’t break defense in Rob Ryan‘s creative scheme.
Each side needs to try and play to their strengths — New Orleans with their aggressiveness and Carolina with their conservativeness — so that they can complement their other unit. Carolina needs to continue to hold onto the ball to keep Drew Brees off the field and let the defense get some rest. Carolina’s defense has been stellar this season, but they have been heavily complemented by the efficiency of the offense, giving the opponent’s offense little time to operate. Stops are going to be hard to come by with Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles working on third down, so Carolina’s offense must run and pass it methodically to make each of those stops count as much as possible.
On the flip side, New Orleans must bring back some of the magic of 2009 season and harness some of their aggressiveness. The only way to counteract Carolina’s time of possession advantage is to get them off the field by forcing turnovers. Carolina’s made it abundantly clear that they will not do a lot of punting with Cam Newton among the league leaders in third down passer rating and Rivera’s new-found success on fourth down. Carolina’s short-yardage running ability and efficient passing game makes them nearly impossible to stop on four downs, so the Saints will need to send complex blitzes and coverages to confuse Newton and force him into bad decisions. Otherwise, the Panthers will run all over the Saints.