5 Match-ups to monitor: Saints vs Panthers

7 January 2018 Eagles News

Today’s Wild Card game between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers will be the third time the two teams face each other this season, with the Saints winning the first two games. It’s a pivotal battle between two teams with Super Bowl aspirations, so let’s take a look at 5 key match-ups to watch on game day:


Saints QB Drew Brees vs Panthers LB Luke Kuechly

This is as important of a battle on Sunday as you can find, with Brees and Kuechly looking to key their respective units to success. Brees is coming off a down year, throwing for 4,334 passing yards and 23 touchdowns, his lowest output in 12 seasons.

Even though Brees posted decade lows in statistics, he was still more than able to dissect opposing defenses to find his pass catchers.  Here he finds WR Mike Thomas on a deep out breaking route for a 1st down.

Here Brees finds Mike Thomas again, and identified pre-snap that Thomas was his read. Brees gives a quick fake and Thomas breaks Rams CB Trumaine Johnson‘s ankles. Brees locked into Thomas all season long, with Thomas posting 104 receptions for 1,245 yards and 5 TDs.

The screen pass is a key tool in the Saints offensive arsenal, and Brees isn’t given enough credit for how flawlessly he executes it. Brees has two backs in Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara that posted 58 receptions and 81 receptions respectively, so both are a real threat to do damage in the passing game. Though Brees wasn’t nearly as prolific passing in 2017, he is still capable of taking a game over during key times to lead the Saints to victory.

Diagnosing and stopping the screen comes down to reading keys, and Panthers LB Luke Kuechly understands and diagnoses plays as well as any defender in the NFL. Here Kuechly  blows up the Bucs screen play for a major loss.

Kuechly is also really good at reading a QBs eyes, and jumping into passing lanes to make plays on the ball. Kuechly diagnoses the slant behind him and makes a great catch to create a turnover and produce a decent run back.

This time Kuechly picks off the late pass from Bucs QB Jameis Winston by dropping straight back and undercutting the TE. Kuechly will have to play lights out against the Saints, making plays against the Saints pass catchers while also playing stout run defense. Drew Brees knows the Saints offense like the back of his hand, and will look to exploit any and every mismatch he can find.


Saints RB Mark Ingram vs Panthers DT Kawann Short

Saints RB Mark Ingram posted career highs in 2017, recording 1,124 rushing yards and 12 TDs, while also chipping in 58 receptions for 416 receiving yards. Panthers DT Kawann Short is stout in the running game, and is one of the best pass rushing 3-techniques in the NFL.

Ingram’s well-rounded game has kept defenses off-guard all season, and allowed the Saints to use Ingram as their early down banger. Ingram isn’t just a 3 yards and a cloud of dust runner however, with his ability to break off long gains for valuable chunk plays.

Ingram’s ability to break tackles is a key part of the Saints offense, and here he breaks two tackles versus the Lions to break off a long run. Ingram’s stiff arm is lethal, and he uses it expertly to keep defenders at bay.

Here Ingram uses his power to punch in this red zone carry for a TD. Ingram was used heavily in the red zone proven by his 12 TDs on the season. He’s an underrated player for New Orleans, with fellow RB Alvin Kamara receiving all of the publicity (and 2nd Team All-Pro selection).

Speaking of underrated, Panthers DT Kawann Short is one of the most unheralded interior linemen in the NFL. He is able to stack and shed with the best of them, and is a pain for opposing offensive linemen. Here Short beats the double team to stop Falcons RB Tevin Coleman for no gain.

One of the reasons that Luke Kuechly is able to make so many plays is because Short does a great job of keeping him clean. Often times Short is left with only a single lineman blocking him, which 9/10 times is a mismatch. Short easily disposes of the center to make the tackle for loss.

Here Short beats the left guard off the snap and forces RB Carlos Hyde to go wide outside. Short then runs down Hyde from behind limiting the play. If Short can continue to be the beast he is, he could force the Saints to move away from running Mark Ingram inside, making New Orleans more pass-oriented, and one-dimensional.


Panthers QB Cam Newton vs Saint DE Cam Jordan

Cam Newton is the catalyst for the Panthers offense, and is usually the determining factor in their wins or losses. Newton should be laser focused for this game, with his chance to lift his team to a win versus their rival. Saints DE Cam Jordan will be primarily tasked with slowing down Newton, providing constant pressure  in the pocket.

It all starts with Cam’s ability to make plays with his legs, as he does here versus the Saints. Cam is the definition of dual-threat, and doesn’t hesitate to leave the pocket if things get too hectic.

During the 2017 off-season the Panthers invested in providing Cam more tools on offense, and  used a 1st round pick on RB Christian McCaffrey. Cam didn’t have a history of utilizing his running backs, but this season he used McCaffrey often to make plays.

There’s plenty to be made of Cam’s inability to consistently win from the pocket, but when given time he can throw darts to his skill players. His primary skill player is WR Devin Funchess, who posted career highs with 63 receptions for 840 receiving yards and 8 TDs. If Cam is provided a clean pocket to throw from, he will make the Saints defense pay with his arm strength.

Saints DE Cam Jordan put together a stellar 2017 season, finishing with 13 sacks on his way to a 1st Team All-Pro selection. Jordan has been a thorn in Cam Newton’s side, and on this play beats the LT for a knockdown on Newton.

Cam Jordan’s ability to beat offensive tackles after engagement is really impressive. He’s able to beat a tackle inside, or around the edge with a combo of strength and power. The real key is that in 2017 Jordan was able to convert his pass pressures into sacks.

The Saints also use Jordan up and down the defensive line, where he gets snaps at both defensive end positions and defensive tackle. As a 3 technique (defensive tackle) he uses his speed to beat guards off the snap, and uses his upper body strength to drive the guard into the backfield. Cam Jordan will need to keep Cam Newton uncomfortable all game, as Jordan is the Saints unquestioned pass rush leader.


Saints RB Alvin Kamara vs Panthers LB Thomas Davis

Needless to say, Alvin Kamara has taken the NFL by storm, and as a rookie was named 2nd Team All-Pro as a running back. Kamara is a walking mismatch that can both run between the tackles, and catch passes all over the field. Panthers LB Thomas Davis, though now older, is still able to slow down opposing pass catchers.

This was a mismatch from the snap, as there was no way Bears LB Leonard Floyd could stay with Kamara running a downfield route. Kamara makes a nice adjustment on the under thrown pass from Drew Brees, and was able to pull in the long reception.

Again Kamara is put in position to beat the opposing defense, running an angle route out of the backfield and making the catch in the middle of the field. Kamara is a really dangerous runner after the catch, and will make the Panthers pay if they don’t take good tackling angles.

Kamara tore up the Rams defense both through the air and on the ground, and here he takes the stretch play to the house after weaving his way through several defenders. On the season Kamara finished with 1,901 total yards and 14 total TDs (kick returns included), making him a lethal weapon for New Orleans.

Much like Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis is a really intelligent and athletic defender for the Panthers. He chases down pass catching backs all game long, looking to limit their passing game production. On this play Thomas beats the cut block by the full back, and tracks Carlos Hyde to the side line to limit the yards after catch.

This play is a great example of the versatility of Kuechly and Thomas Davis, with both backers combining on the tackle against the running back. Thomas Davis is a big hitter and tone setter for the Panthers defense, who is looking to intimidate opposing players.

Again Davis is in position to limit the run after catch, even though Adrian Peterson is able to stiff arm Thomas Davis to the ground. Davis will have to key in on Kamara through out the game, because if Kamara gets any amount of space, he has the speed and agility to take it to the house from anywhere.


Saints CB Marshon Lattimore vs Panthers WR Devin Funchess

Last, but definitely not least, is the match up between New Orleans’s premiere lock down rookie corner Marshon Lattimore, and Carolina’s #1 receiver Devin Funchess. Lattimore and Funchess are two talented players that are important pieces to their respective units, and will square off all game on Sunday.

Lattimore is the epitome of a play maker, as he collected 5 INTs, including one pick-six against the Lions. Lattimore also broke up 18 passes, and forced and recovered a fumble in only 13 games. He’s adept at putting himself in position for takeaways, but is also a really good press man corner that’ll shadow opposing #1 receivers.

You really can’t afford to make any mistakes when throwing in Lattimore’s direction, as the Bears found out on this play. Lattimore totaled 85 yards on his INT returns, showing his ability to make plays with the ball in his hands.

Besides just skill, Lattimore’s mentality also separates him from many of the other starting CBs in the NFL. He is as competitive as they come on each down, and will battle a #1 receiver all game long. Even though Julio Jones emerged with a monster stat line in this game (7-149), Lattimore did a good job of making most of the receptions tough for Jones.

Coming into 2017, there were a lot of questions around Devin Funchess, and whether he’d ever evolve into a starting caliber WR. After an in-season trade of WR Kelvin  Benjamin, Funchess was thrust into the #1 receiver role, and thrived. Funchess provides Cam with a big target down the field, and Funchess clearly worked on his route running during the off-season.

If you decide to play zone, Funchess consistently finds the hole or weak spot, and will sit down to give Cam a nice target. This is somewhat natural to Funchess, as this was a big part of his game at the University of Michigan, finding soft spots in opposing defenses.

Again, improvisational football is something that Funchess is already good at, and here he works his way open during the scramble drill. Newton makes a nearly impossible throw that Funchess is able to reel in for the TD. Funchess’s improvement as a wide receiver is a huge reason why the Panthers were able to move on from Benjamin, yet still be productive offensively. Funchess and Lattimore will most likely get after it all game long, and will be a great individual match-up to watch.


Final Analysis

These 5 match-ups will be really fun to watch, and keep track of as the game goes along. With divisional games it’s always difficult to determine who will be victorious, since both teams know each other so well. Add on the fact that this is a Wild Card Playoff game, and all bets are off. Which ever offense is able to establish their style of football will be the team that walks away from this victorious, and keeps their Super Bowl hopes alive.

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