Dec 8, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas (23) is pursued by Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) during the second half of a game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Saints at Panthers Winner-Take-All Matchup Kickoff Today

Here it is, just a few days before Christmas and the Carolina Panthers are playing a meaningful ball game.

It’s the most meaningful one they’ve played in years and certainly in Ron Rivera’s tenure.

If the Panthers defeat the New Orleans Saints today at Bank of America Stadium, they’ll win the division with a win on the road in Atlanta next week for certain. If the Saints win, they win the NFC South outright, since they’d have a one game lead with one left to play and have the season sweep of the Panthers as the tiebreaker in their hip pocket.

However, not all is well in Jazzville. The Saints pulled a stinker at St. Louis last week, a team the Panthers beat in Charlotte not that long ago, and Drew Brees & co. face an even stiffer defense this week. Sounds bad for the Saints, right?

Consider the fact they are starting rookie Terron Armstead of Arkansas-Pine Bluff at left tackle, and consider he has to block Greg “The Krakken” Hardy today. Sounds like a disaster waiting to happen….right?

Not so fast.

Armstead gets his first NFL action this week due to protection issues at LT. That actually gives Brees, Sean Payton, and their entire team a bit of an uplift. If Armstead can play like an “average” NFL left tackle against Hardy, Hardy should get one or two sacks, a few more hurries/hits, but their offense doesn’t have the luxury of giving him too much help because there simply is no free lunch when it comes to protecting the quarterback from the Carolina Panthers Frightful Four of their defensive line.

So, while the Saints don’t have their offense at 100%, it’s not far away. With the weapons they have – and scatback Darren Sproles ALWAYS scares me – they have the ability to do a lot of damage even with short, quick passes.

I have always said that a well-executed West Coast offense is the bane of Carolina’s defense….and frankly any defense with today’s pass-happy NFL rulebook.

New Orleans, Denver, New England…all similar in style offensively as they all use the short pass as a partial substitute for the running game in order to get some quick skill position players the ball in space. Denver has Wes Welker, New England has Danny Amendola (when he’s healthy), and the Saints have not only Sproles but the NFL’s best tight end in Jimmy Graham.

Dec 8, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) is tackled by Carolina Panthers cornerback Drayton Florence (29) in the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. New Orleans defeated the Panthers 31-13. Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

Pick your poison there, but at least Carolina has MLB Luke Kuechly, who has the speed to stay with Graham. While nobody can cover him all the time, Kuechly should make things just difficult enough to make a difference.

The solution is always the same, but ever difficult to execute: pressure.

With Drew Brees taking mainly three and five-step drops and running a timing offense, the ball is gone in less than three seconds. That’s not much time for Hardy or bookend Charles Johnson on the strong side to defeat the man in front of them and get to Drew Brees. Something else has to happen.

That would be playing press coverage against the Saints’ receivers.

In the game at New Orleans two weeks ago, Carolina’s corners didn’t have much success in jamming and re-routing the Saints receivers, and that’s where the battle was lost. In any “timing” type of NFL offense, the QB throws the ball not to a guy, but to a spot on the field. The idea is that the receiver knows where he’s supposed to go and where he needs to be AND at the precise time to get an open look and a reception. When it’s working, it’s unstoppable.

To make it NOT work, Carolina’s cornerbacks MUST get in the face of their man and put their hands on him. Even if the WR is too quick to jam on a consistent basis, just getting him off-balance a half-step or forcing him to take an extra step or two to avoid the Royal Treatment at the hands of a strong corner like Captain Munnerlyn can be enough to throw off rhythm enough for a pass to go sailing by within inches.

Dec 15, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; New York Jets tight end Jeff Cumberland (87) scores a touchdown as Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (41) defends in the fourth quarter. The Panthers defeated the Jets 30-20 at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Precision on offense demands everything be “just so” and when it’s not, it really can take a toll.

Rookie DT Star Lotulelei and fellow rookie DT Kawann Short need to penetrate and be disruptive, pushing the pocket from the shortest point and into Brees’ face. When the center of the pocket doesn’t hold, no QB can step up and into a throw or step up to avoid the ends being routed behind him. That can also be a highly disruptive tool in the toolbox for Rivera…if it can be done very consistently.

There we have the two main points to pressure….the outside receivers and the center of the pocket. The scouting report on Armstead before his drafting this past April was that he’s athletic – as in Lane Johnson-type athleticism – but susceptible to the bull rush as he lacks elite lower-body strength. Some of that gap has probably since been made up being in an NFL strength program for the past six months, but it’s something to look out for.

Cam Newton needs to be on top of his game as well. The Saints have Rob Ryan as their new Defensive Coordinator for 2013, and he runs his own style of defense. Not quite a “46″ defense as he lacks some key players to pull that off, not quite a 3-4 either as they have had injuries and position and personnel moves as a result, but they have been effective nonetheless. Sure, they can play a bit streaky but when they’re on, they can be a formidable unit.

Rookie strong safety Kenny Vaccaro is playing like the DROY candidate that he may be and the Saints are fifth in the NFL in total defense.

The good news?

Oct 27, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan talks with strong safety Kenny Vaccaro (32) during the second half of a game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Bills 35-17. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

They’re third against the pass, but 21st against the run, and Carolina’s passing game is a bit unorthodox. With Cam Newton’s legs, cannon arm, and his third season being one of maturity, they have the tools to do enough on their end to win at home today. Cam’s two favorite passes – the deep comeback and deep out – are nearly impossible to defend IF he gets the time to throw it.

Both patterns require a bit more protection than Brees’ throws, but Cam has the arm and in this case just as importantly, the legs to make those throws. He routinely throws the deep out from the far hash-mark when protected and is right up there with Big Ben of the Pittsburgh Steelers when it comes to being a hard QB to get on the ground. He also has the speed and agility to move the chains with his feet, when necessary.

With the Saints’ offense scoring a lot of points, one would think their defense would be better against the run since teams abandon it to play catch-up. I think this is the key for the Panthers offense.

Carolina has not been able to consistently run the ball the entire season. Sure, they try and often do okay but I still see too many runs go for two yards or less to say they can grind it out against anyone. They can’t yet…and that’s largely due to injuries at the guard position.

However, if the offense can put together the right game-plan for the defense and execute, they should be able to move the ball. Greg Olson is a great safety valve and chains-mover at tight end. Steve Smith isn’t the downfield threat he was during Cam’s rookie season but remains one of the strongest receivers in the NFL and can get some yards after catch by breaking tackles. Ted Ginn, jr. would be scary if he had consistent hands, but remains a deep threat that has to be respected.

The Panthers’ WR corps also happens to be VERY good at run-blocking. As I said, Smitty is as strong as an ox on one side and Brandon LaFell may be an even better run-blocking WR and is highly underrated at that skill. He’s the one who threw the block downfield last week at about the 30 yard line on Dee Miliner that allowed DeAngelo Williams to escape that last man and score on his 72-yard screen pass. Lafell drove Miliner to the boundary as D-Will ran nearly straight at me in the stands.

Put it all together, and knowing that the crowd at BoA Stadium is going to be vociferous, and the Carolina Panthers likely have the scales tipped in their favor.

Prediction:

Carolina 27, New Orleans 24

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