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NFL Preview - Carolina (0-3) at New Orleans (2-1)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Last Sunday, the New Orleans Saints ceded control of supremacy in the NFC South to a division rival in a closely-contested tilt that they seemed to have won. One week later, another division rival - the struggling Carolina Panthers - could bear the brunt of the Saints' frustration over their Week 3 result.
Kicker Garrett Hartley, a playoff hero last Jan. 24 when he kicked the Saints into their first Super Bowl, was fitted for the goat horns after missing a 29- yard try in overtime that would have moved New Orleans to 3-0. Instead, the Saints lost, 27-24, when Atlanta's Matt Bryant kicked a 46-yard field goal through the uprights moments later. Hartley also missed two field goals in the team's Week 1 win against the Vikings, but remains on the New Orleans roster - albeit with some competition.
The Saints re-signed 45-year-old John Carney - the third-leading scorer in NFL history - on Wednesday, in order to provide some immediate competition to Hartley. Carney, who broke into the league with the Buccaneers in 1988 and is beginning his third tour of duty with New Orleans, made 13-of-17 field goal tries last season before the younger Hartley was given his job back.
To be clear, kicking was not New Orleans' lone problem against the Falcons. Atlanta churned up 417 yards - including 202 on the ground - and controlled the ball for more than 45 minutes of the game clock when all was said and done. Once Hartley missed, the Saints defense allowed the Falcons to engineer a 12-play, 52-yard drive to get the Falcons within range of the Bryant field goal.
Meanwhile, Drew Brees and a usually efficient Saints offense turned the ball over three times, and rushed for just 43 yards on 16 carries against a Falcons team that entered the day surrendering a league-worst 5.9 yards per rush.
The defeat dropped the Saints into a first-place tie with the similarly 2-1 Falcons and Buccaneers atop the division.
The Panthers, whose 20-7 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals was almost identical to their first two defeats of 2010, are pulling up the rear in the NFC South.
With Matt Moore at quarterback for the team's losses to the Giants (31-18) and Buccaneers (20-7), the Panthers failed to reach the 300-yard offensive plateau, spread eight turnovers over two games, and could not establish their formerly vaunted running game.
Things got no better in rookie Jimmy Clausen's first NFL start, last week as the second-rounder out of Notre Dame was 16-of-33 for 188 yards with no touchdowns, leading one scoring drive but also committing three turnovers (one INT, two fumbles) for an attack that finished with just 267 yards. The ground game could muster just 87 yards, as a team that fielded two 1,100-yard rushers last season dropped to 19th in NFL rushing offense.
Clausen will remain in the lineup this week, as he tries to improve an attack that ranks last in the league in completion percentage (44.3) and has committed a league-worst 12 turnovers.
The Panthers are one of five remaining winless NFL teams, joining the Bills, Browns, Lions and 49ers. Carolina will on Sunday be trying to avoid its first 0-4 start since 1998, when the team lost its first seven en route to a 4-12 finish.
Carolina leads its all-time series with New Orleans, 17-13, including a conventional split of last year's home-and-home series. The Saints were 30-20 home winners when the teams met in Week 9 of last season, and dropped a 23-10 road decision in Week 17, when New Orleans rested many of its starters in preparation for the playoffs. The Panthers swept the 2008 home-and-home, including a dramatic 33-31 victory at the Superdome in Week 17.
Panthers head coach John Fox has an 11-5 record against the Saints in his career, while New Orleans' Sean Payton is 2-6 against both Fox and the Panthers as a head coach. Fox and Payton both served as members of Jim Fassel's staff with the New York Giants from 1999 through 2001.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Clausen (247 passing yards, 2 INT) actually did some good things against the Bengals, spreading the ball around to seven different targets, leading a couple of decent drives and hitting wideout and fellow rookie Brandon LaFell (3 receptions) with a 44-yard completion late in the game. The objective this week will be to make a few more big plays down the field, with No. 1 wideout Steve Smith (11 receptions, 2 TD) among those looking to become more involved. Smith was limited to three catches for 22 yards against the Bengals, while rookie David Gettis (5 receptions) was nearly his equal with three grabs totaling 32 yards. Without question, Clausen needs better help from a running game that has yet to get untracked in 2010. DeAngelo Williams (180 rushing yards) carried 10 times for 64 yards but did not have any show-stopping runs, and Jonathan Stewart (68 rushing yards, 1 TD) scored the team's lone TD of the game but amassed a mere 13 yards on eight carries. Third-down back Mike Goodson (9 receptions) was the club's leading receiver with four grabs for 47 yards. Clausen was sacked just once by Cincinnati, after Moore was dropped eight times in the team's first two contests.
In a nutshell, the Saints defense must do a better job of getting off the field this week than it did against the Falcons. Though Hartley's miss ended up as the big story, the fact that Atlanta piled up 25 first downs and was 11- of-21 on third- or fourth-down is something that coordinator Gregg Williams must get fixed. New Orleans needs a better run-stopping effort from the front four, with interior linemen Sedrick Ellis (9 tackles, 2 sacks) and Remi Ayodele (6 tackles) a big part of that directive. Linebackers Jo-Lonn Dunbar (18 tackles), Jonathan Vilma (25 tackles, 1 INT) and Scott Shanle (21 tackles) all had double-digit tackles numbers last week, but that's more of an indictment of a group that had trouble getting off the field. Looking to rattle Clausen this week will be a pass rushing group led by Will Smith (11 tackles, 1 sack) and Alex Brown (8 tackles), both of whom have been slow out of the gate. The secondary, led by cornerback Tracy Porter (14 tackles, 1 INT) and safeties Malcolm Jenkins (15 tackles) and Roman Harper (18 tackles, 1 INT), must locate its ability to make big plays.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Though it might not seem like a big deal given the strength of the New Orleans passing game, the fact that the Saints are last in the league in rushing offense (57.6 yards per game) is a problem indeed for a team that was quietly sixth in the league in that category last season. With Reggie Bush still absent due to a leg injury, the club needs Pierre Thomas (147 rushing yards, 17 receptions, 1 TD) and Chris Ivory (13 rushing yards) to step up their play. Thomas carried nine times for 30 yards last Sunday and was limited by an ankle injury, but is expected to play this week. Meanwhile, Brees (856 passing yards, 6 TD, 2 INT) and a passing attack that has completed a league-best 75.9 percent of its passes needs to keep its interceptions to a minimum this week. Lance Moore (9 receptions, 2 TD) was Brees' star target against the Falcons, getting behind the defense for an 80-yard touchdown pass and setting up another score with a 72-yard punt return in the first quarter. Tight end Jeremy Shockey (14 receptions, 1 TD) logged eight receptions for 78 yards and a score in the loss, but wideouts Marques Colston (14 receptions), Devery Henderson (7 receptions, 1 TD) and Robert Meachem (4 receptions) combined for just seven catches and 54 yards. Brees was also sacked twice in the contest.
The Panthers defense has not been dominant through the season's first three weeks, but has been good enough for the team to win if it could find a bit more life offensively. The unit kept Carolina in the game until the fourth quarter last week, intercepting Bengals QB Carson Palmer twice and holding Cincinnati running back Cedric Benson to just 81 yards on 27 carries (3.0 yards per carry). The linebacking corps of Dan Connor (23 tackles, 1 sack) in the middle and Jon Beason (28 tackles) and James Anderson (28 tackles, 1 INT) on the outside has been a strength. Defensive tackle Ed Johnson (8 tackles) was also active in last week's loss, managing six tackles on the day. On the back end, safety Charles Godfrey (18 tackles) leads the NFL in interceptions (3) after tallying his third pick of the year last week to go along with 11 tackles. Cornerbacks Chris Gamble (12 tackles) and Richard Marshall (7 tackles) should be extra busy against the Saints' fleet of receivers on Sunday. Charles Johnson (9 tackles, 1 sack) had Carolina's lone sack of the plodding Palmer last week, which was also just the club's second sack of the year.
The Panthers are becoming a hands-off team from a fantasy perspective, though you can't totally disregard their offensive weapons against a Saints defense that has allowed plenty of yards thus far. Williams is probably worthy of a flex-play start this week, and you have to imagine that Smith will get his opportunities as well.
On the New Orleans side, Brees has been the only consistent fantasy force. You'll probably get some type of contribution from Thomas, Shockey, and the team's fleet of wideouts, but it's impossible to predict which of the backs and receivers is going to have a big day. Obviously, you'll want to steer clear of Hartley or Carney, but the New Orleans defense might be a decent play against a rookie QB who figures to make some mistakes.
The notion of the Saints losing back-to-back division games in its home building is extremely far-fetched, though its history against Carolina suggests that New Orleans can't just roll its helmets onto the field and win the football game. Even with a rookie quarterback, the Panthers have enough talent and are well-coached enough to keep Carolina in this game against a Saints team that has yet to click on all cylinders. At the end of the day, there's little to no way Jimmy Clausen is beating Drew Brees, but don't be surprised if the result of this contest is still in doubt heading into the fourth quarter.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 24, Panthers 14
09/30 11:23:13 ET