With the NFL becoming an offense-oriented league, focusing heavily on complex passing schemes and high-tempo drives, defense has had to adapt. The needs of NFL defenses has shifted, moving away from the traditional body types and skill sets that have permeated position groups in the NFL for decades.
Defensive lines have traded big run-stuffers for athletic pass rushers, designed to take down the quarterbacks that drive these high-octane offenses. Linebackers have lost some bulk as well, so as to be more fluid in coverage and agile enough to make tackles in space against shifty runners. The Seattle Seahawks have led the revolution in the secondary, breeding tall, rangy corners that beat up on receivers at the line of scrimmage like Mel Blount in the 70′s.
The Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints have both developed good defenses by adhering to these new standards, especially the Panthers. Both defenses rely heavily on their pass rush, especially their bookends, to get in the quarterback’s face and help out their vulnerable secondaries. The last time these teams met it was Drew Brees who stood tall in the pocket and carved up the Panthers’ secondary, while Junior Gallette and Cameron Jordan put the heat on Cam Newton.
However, while the Saints were able to dominate the Panthers in the Superdome, they won’t have the same advantage in Bank of America Stadium. The Saints are a vastly different team on the road, evident from disappointing losses to the New York Jets and the St. Louis Rams.
Brees won’t be able to get his play calls out with the same alacrity as he did in the Superdome, and the noise may also throw his timing off, making it hard to get the ball out quickly like he did in New Orleans. That will allow Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy a chance to get heat on Brees, and keep him from getting the ball in the hands of Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham.
The Panthers also won’t have to deal with the raucous noise of the Superdome, which should help Ryan Kalil and Newton regulate the protections and keep Newton standing. Gallette and Jordan totally stifled the Panthers’ offense last time, so Mike Shula will most certainly have them circled on his game plan.
Look for Greg Olsen and Mike Tolbert to chip Gallette and Jordan at the line of scrimmage, especially on the right side where Byron Bell has struggled mightily this season. Whoever can apply the most pressure will win this game, and the team that doesn’t will have to watch the NFC South title slip through their hands.