Sunday’s trip to New Orleans did not go as planned for the Carolina Panthers.
When most folks travel to “The Big Easy,” they get in trouble on Bourbon Street: a few too many beverages, an embarrassing moment or two involving beads...whatever. Carolina’s trouble was that its defense was too easy.
Quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints dropped 31 points on a Panthers defense that allowed just 13.1 points per game on average heading into the contest. Brees threw for 313 yards and connected on four touchdown passes.
To put into perspective just how abnormal those 313 yards through the air were to this Carolina defense, consider this: Not only was it the second-highest passing total from any quarterback this season against the Panthers, but six times prior, Carolina held entire teams to fewer yards in a game.
|Panthers: Yardage Allowed 2013|
|Team||Passing Yards||Rushing Yards||Total Yards|
|Pro Football Reference|
Where did it all go wrong?
This is nothing new.
But there are two specific reasons why New Orleans had success Sunday, and both have to do with what Carolina didn’t do. The Panthers had a ton of trouble keeping Brees from throwing deep, especially in the middle of the field, and there wasn’t any of Carolina’s trademark pressure on the quarterback.
Brees complete five passes of 20 yards or more against the Panthers, and most of that damage was done with deep balls over the middle to open receivers.
On this play, Carolina used linebacker Luke Kuechly on a blitz. Saints running back Mark Ingram picked him up, and tight end Ben Watson ran a post route.
Safety Quintin Mikell couldn’t stay with Watson and left him wide open in the middle of the field. When the pressure picked up in the backfield, Brees easily hit his No. 2 tight end for 20 yards.
Lance Moore caught a deep pass over the middle four minutes later for 20 yards, but the next play to examine is tight end Jimmy Graham’s fourth-quarter 22-yard reception.
Carolina showed blitz with seven people on the line but only brought four. Brees had plenty of time to let Graham’s post pattern over the middle materialize.
Graham slipped past linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly and caught a pass in front of safety Mike Mitchell. Graham then broke a tackle and dragged a few guys to get to the 9-yard line.
Brees was able to pick apart Carolina’s secondary not only because of the deficiencies in the defensive backfield, but also because the Panthers couldn’t get any real pressure on Brees.
The Panthers sacked Brees twice, but only got pressure on him 11 times in 34 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Left tackle Charles Brown and right tackle Zach Strief had great games. For the first time this season, Brown didn’t allow any pressure whatsoever on Brees. Strief played just as well and also didn’t allow any pressure on Brees.
The offensive line did its job keeping Brees clean, and when Carolina did bring more pressure than New Orleans could handle, the Saints running backs did a fantastic job of staying back to help block and pick up blitzes.
The Saints only called 14 run plays (Brees scrambled three times as well) and gained just 69 yards on the ground. While their presence wasn’t felt with the ball in their hands, guys like fullback Jed Collins and running back Mark Ingram earned their paychecks by protecting Brees.
There aren’t a lot of teams in the NFL that have the personnel to push around Carolina’s defense like New Orleans did. In fact, 12 teams tried previously and didn’t have the same results. If it’s going to happen again, offensive coordinators are going to want to look at how the Saints drew up protection packages for Brees and how the offense attacked Carolina’s secondary.
Carolina’s defensive backfield is its weakest link, so that’s an obvious target. If the Panthers can’t get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, their defense isn’t nearly as punishing.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.