In his postgame press conference less than two hours after the Carolina Panthers beat the New York Jets 30-20, quarterback Cam Newton used a form of the word “prepare” eight times.
He stressed the importance of the next game, the biggest game of the season, and how Carolina has to be prepared in its rematch against New Orleans that will play a large role in deciding the Panthers’ playoff future.
“We’ve got to be greedy with preparation,” Newton said. “Look at this game, look at that game, look at the game from last year, look at the Cowboys game. With (Saints defensive coordinator Rob) Ryan being the defensive coordinator facing us, any and every opportunity that we get or clue, we’re going to take advantage of it.”
The Saints toppled the Panthers 31-13 in the Superdome two weeks ago, but sandwiched in between the NFC South showdowns is a 27-16 Saints loss to the Rams on Sunday.
An Observer film review from the first Panthers-Saints game and last week’s Saints-Rams game found four areas Carolina will want to exploit if it wants a shot at beating the Saints, controlling the NFC South and getting a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Stay out of third-and-long: This can be said about any team facing any opponent in any game, but it’s especially true for the Panthers. Carolina leads the NFL in time of possession with an average of 33 minutes, 7 seconds. Staying out of long yardage situations equals a greater opportunity to extend drives.
“We want to score every time we get the ball,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “Do we want to have to go through 10-play drives? No. We want to score faster than that. But the biggest thing is to win on early downs so you’re staying out of long yardage. Whether or not that equates to a longer drive or points, either way we’ll take it. But stay out of the long yardage situations because your chances go down of staying on the field.”
The Saints have allowed 66 third-down conversions all seasons, ranking eighth-best in the league and just two conversions allowed more than Carolina’s vaunted defense.
The Rams went 7-for-14 on third downs against the Saints, well above their conversion average of 34.8 percent. And St. Louis managed to stay out of long yardage on third downs. Only four of the 14 third downs had to cover more than 5 yards.
Against the Saints, the Panthers went 6-for-15 (40 percent) on third downs, which is below their average of 45.7 percent. Of those 15 third downs, 10 were with more than 5 yards to go.
Go after Charles Brown: Saints left tackle Charles Brown had a miserable day last week against the Rams and was eventually benched because of it.
Brown had the unenviable task of having to keep defensive end Robert Quinn at bay, and he could not. Quinn, who’s on a short list for Defensive Player of the Year, sacked quarterback Drew Brees twice while going up against Brown, and his pressure on Brees on the Saints’ first play helped cause an interception.
Saints head coach Sean Payton yanked Brown in the third quarter and moved right tackle Zach Strief to the left side, and Payton has not guaranteed Brown will reclaim his spot for Sunday’s game.
It will be up to Greg Hardy to emulate the type of disruption Quinn caused if the Panthers want to be as successful. Hardy – and the rest of the defensive line for that matter – didn’t get much pressure on Brees, and Hardy finished with one tackle, zero sacks and zero quarterback hits going up against Brown.
The Panthers could use a performance from Hardy like the one he gave in Week 3 against the Giants, when he went up against left tackle Will Beatty and used his speed and athleticism to sack Eli Manning three times en route to winning NFC defensive player of the week.
Avoid the deep ball between the 40s: It’s no secret Brees likes to throw the ball, and against the Panthers he threw for 313 yards and became the fifth quarterback in NFL history with more than 50,000 passing yards in a career.
If the Saints have a first down between the 40-yard lines, Payton is probably dialing up a big play for Brees, as was the case in games against both the Panthers and Rams, and Carolina has to do a better job of keeping the ball and Saints receivers in front of them.
The Saints had 10 first downs between the 40s against the Rams, and five resulted in gains of 15 yards or more. The other five were two penalties, one throw of 4 yards, a rush of 1 yard and an incomplete deep ball.
The Panthers did a better job against that than the Rams, but not by much. The Saints had seven first downs between the 40s against Carolina. Three of those plays were passes of 14 yards or more, and one was a rush of 38 yards. Two plays were short rushes in the fourth quarter as New Orleans attempted to run time off the clock in its blowout win.
Get the screen working: The Panthers scored a 72-yard touchdown against the Jets on a screen pass to DeAngelo Williams for his first receiving touchdown of the season, but it really could have been his second in consecutive weeks.
In the first quarter of the first Panthers-Saints game, Newton had an open Williams near the New Orleans 26 but couldn’t get the touch he wanted on the pass to Williams, who had three blockers in front of him.
After picking off Brees in Saints territory, the Rams executed a screen pass that with good tackling should have gained about 10 yards. Instead, tight end Cory Harkey picked up two key blocks down the sideline and blew through two poor tackles on his way to a 31-yard touchdown.
The Panthers have shown this season they can block well downfield, especially wide receivers Steve Smith – who helped Cam Newton’s 56-yard rush against Tampa Bay in Week 13 – and Brandon LaFell, who Ron Rivera has proclaimed the best blocking receiver on the team.
When executed well, the screen has proven to be a play the Saints struggle against the past two weeks.
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9