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NFL Preview - New Orleans (3-1) at Carolina (1-3)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera handed rookie quarterback Cam Newton the keys to the car this summer, and the No. 1 pick of the 2011 NFL Draft has left everyone in the dust.
Newton will try to build off his tremendous career start when he leads the Panthers into a NFC South battle with the New Orleans Saints, who invade Bank of America Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
The 1-3 Panthers are frustrated with where they're at right now, but are also pleased with how quickly Newton has picked up the vernacular and tendencies of opposing defenses so soon. Rivera has been impressed with Newton's excessive growth in such a short time, and feels the rest of his team should follow suit.
"When the rest of us catch up with Cam...because some of us aren't growing at the same pace...I think we'll be a good football team," said Rivera. "It's a learning process."
Rivera knew what he was getting into when he accepted Carolina's vacant head coaching position in January, though he could probably tell you he was in the dark about how Newton would perform after beating out Jimmy Clausen for the starting job during the preseason. The Panthers were rewarded with the first overall pick in last April's draft and needed a franchise quarterback to build around. Newton, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, has been a blessing so far.
He helped the Panthers establish a franchise record with 543 total yards of offense in last week's 34-29 loss at Chicago, which marked the return of Rivera -- a former linebacker and assistant coach with the Bears -- to his old stomping grounds. Newton passed for 374 yards with a touchdown, though he also had an interception that was returned for a touchdown. It also didn't help that the Bears gained a significant edge on special teams, an area in which Panthers kicker Olindo Mare struggled by missing two field goal opportunities.
Leaving points on the field is a dagger in the back to any team, no matter how talented. Though the Panthers are showing progress at a slow rate and there has been optimism that a change for the better is waiting in the wings, their current record shows there's still work to be done. Newton has shown signs of being that saving grace, however.
New Orleans felt that same way when Drew Brees first donned the fleur de lis on the side of his helmet a few years ago, and the former Purdue star delivered when brought a championship to the Big Easy in 2009. The Saints are hoping Super Bowl title No. 2 is next on Brees' list as they shoot for a 4-1 start to the season.
The Saints handed the Jacksonville Jaguars are 23-10 loss last Sunday in the first of three consecutive road games. With Carolina and Tampa Bay still on the travel list, New Orleans hopes to at least stay even with the Buccaneers atop the NFC South standings.
It was a relatively easy task disposing of the Jaguars and rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who passed for 196 yards with a touchdown and an interception and was sacked three times by New Orleans.
Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams dialed up the blitz many times at EverBank Field, where the Saints racked up 503 yards of offense and Brees passed for 351 yards and a score with a pair of picks. He was able to overcome the two interceptions by putting the ball into the hands of first-year Saint Darren Sproles, as the pint-sized running back garnered 188 all-purpose yards.
"He can do so many things," Brees said of Sproles. "He was our leading rusher [last week] and had the fewest number of carries and most yards. You just want to get the ball into that guy's hands because he can do some exciting stuff."
Brees will try to keep Sproles involved all season for the Saints, whose second-rated pass attack will challenge Carolina's sixth-best pass defense. The Saints are also second in total yards with an average of 454 per game and sit fifth in the NFL with an average of 31.8 points per contest. Gaudy numbers generally don't result in victories all the time, but New Orleans has a good chance of winning this one if the defense can keep Newton on his heels.
The Saints took care of one rookie last week and will look to do it again, though head coach Sean Payton is aware of what lies ahead for his team in its matchup with Newton.
"Number one, in a short period of time they've put together a plan that really fits his strengths," Payton said of the Panthers and Newton. "The thing that challenges your defense with him are the extended plays. He's strong, he's big in the pocket, and I think there's that leadership ability that's contagious with the offensive players that are on the field."
Carolina holds a slight 17-15 edge in the all-time series between these teams, but New Orleans came out on top in both 2010 matchups. The Saints edged the Panthers by a 16-14 count at the Superdome during Week 4 of last season, then produced a 34-3 rout in Charlotte in November. The Saints had left with defeats in three of their last four visits to Bank of America Stadium prior to that result, including losses in both 2008 (30-7) and 2009 (23-10).
Payton has compiled a 4-6 record against Carolina during his five-year tenure as the Saints' head coach, while Rivera will be opposing both New Orleans and Payton for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
The Saints have been a high-scoring offense for quite some time, and Brees (1410 passing yards, 10 TD, 4 INT) was disappointed they didn't score more points in last Sunday's win at Jacksonville. He said afterwards had someone told him New Orleans would muster more than 500 yards of offense, he would have thought the score would have been even more lopsided than 13 points. Brees alluded to the fact the Saints were inside the Jags' 20-yard line three times in the second half and failed to score a touchdown. Brees has thrown a touchdown pass in 31 straight games and broke a tie with Dan Marino for the third-longest streak in NFL annals with last week's performance. Johnny Unitas holds the NFL record of 47 and Brett Favre is second with 36 consecutive games with a touchdown strike. Brees has also posted at least 20 completions in 24 games in a row, the longest streak in league history, and owns 40 games of 300 or more passing yards as a Saint. Wide receiver Marques Colston (7 receptions) returned from a two-game absence due to a shoulder injury last week, but had just one catch for eight yards. Sproles (26 receptions, 1 TD) led the team's aerial attack with 75 yards on seven catches and tops the Saints in receptions. Rookie running back Mark Ingram (184 rushing yards, 1 TD) posted a career-best 55 yards on 17 touches for the Saints, whose offensive line played without center Olin Kreutz and right tackle Zach Strief last week.
Carolina should expect Brees and the Saints to air it out this weekend and is currently sixth against the pass, allowing 203 yards per game. The Panthers were burned by Bears running back Matt Forte, who had 205 yards rushing last week, but held Chicago to nine completed passes and 93 net yards passing. The nine completions are the fourth-fewest given up in team history. Veteran cornerback Chris Gamble (5 tackles) did not travel to Chicago last week because of a concussion suffered against Jacksonville the previous Sunday, and is hoping to get back onto the field this weekend. Darius Butler (7 tackles) will most likely get the start if Gamble is unable to go, and Rivera has been impressed with the former's cover skills and aggressiveness. Butler will need to use his talents with the pass-happy Saints coming to town. The Panthers made a move this week by claiming safety Jermale Hines off of waivers from Indianapolis and releasing safety Sean Considine. Defensive end Charles Johnson (13 tackles), who signed a big deal in the offseason, has a sack in four straight games and 12 in his last 11 outing. He posted a career-best 11 1/2 sacks in 2010.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
The Panthers have proven they can throw the ball around, averaging 334.8 passing yards per game right now, but running the football has been an area of concern. They are 17th in the league in rushing and backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart haven't lived up to their standards. Williams (143 rushing yards) leads the Panthers with 37 carries and Newton is second with 33 for 133 yards. Stewart (142 rushing yards) and Williams are both healthy, and also part of the reason why Carolina notched a franchise-best 543 yards of total offense against the Bears. The Panthers posted a season-high 169 yards rushing on Chicago as well and have gained at least 400 total yards three times in 2011. Newton (1,386 passing yards, 5 TD, 5 INT) has been progressing at a quick rate and seems to enjoy throwing to wideout Steve Smith as much as possible. The Saints are in the middle of the pack against the pass, while Smith (24 receptions, 530 yards, 2 TD) looks to add to his team-high reception total this season. He became the Panthers' all-time leading receiver with 9,414 yards, surpassing the 9,255 yards by Muhsin Muhammad, in last week's loss, and finished the game with a team-high eight catches for 181 yards to post his third 100-yard receiving performance this season. Tight end Jeremy Shockey (178 yards), a former Saint, is dealing with a concussion and questionable for Sunday.
Payton said during his Monday conference that Newton is similar to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger or Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman because of his size and ability to avoid the sack. He added Newton's speed and arm strength will give defenses fits and that he isn't afraid to take off in tight coverage. As previously noted, the Saints hassled Gabbert into many errant throws and sacked the first-round draft pick three times, two of which were by veteran defensive end Will Smith (8 tackles), who now has 12 multi-sack performances in his career and should be ready for an even tougher challenge this week. The Saints, who became the first NFC South team to win in Jacksonville (1-8) last week, held the Jaguars to 274 total yards in one of the defense's best showings of the year. The Saints are ninth against the run, 15th in yards allowed, 19th in pass defense and 20th in points surrendered through four weeks of action. Leading tackler and strong safety Roman Harper (31 tackles) posted his team- leading fourth sack of the season last Sunday and finished with eight stops. Carolina's ground attack is nothing to fret over, but its passing game may cause problems. Saints corners Jabari Greer (19 tackles) and Tracy Porter (7 tackles) will be busy.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Saints will win if Brees is given enough time to pick apart the defense. Teams have been able to get their licks on the standout quarterback, as Brees has picked himself off of the turf nine times this season, including five in the past two weeks, and Carolina needs to mount a rush to keep him at bay. Brees has won three straight meetings with the Panthers and is 8-3 in his last 11 starts against teams from the NFC South.
Can Newton and the Panthers match the Saints' high-powered offense in front of the home crowd? Newton has been lights-out in each of his first four starts and gives his team a glimmer of hope when it comes to winning. Rivera mentioned if the team can match Newton's growth, then bright moments will follow. The running game must follow suit to avoid making Newton a one-man gang.
Special teams and run defense killed Carolina in the Windy City last week, with Forte running wild and Devin Hester returning a punt for a touchdown. For the Panthers' sake, the coaching staff will have to make the proper adjustments for the visiting Saints.
The Panthers' offensive production has fueled the team to just one win this season, and the frustration will continue Sunday versus a more versatile New Orleans team. Newton is on pace to become a unanimous choice as Offensive Rookie of the Year, but winning games trumps personal achievements at this level. Newton needs to figure out fast how to win and how to beat good teams if he plans on etching his name as one of the best. He could learn a few things from Brees, with the most important lesson centered around winning.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 31, Panthers 20
10/06 17:48:57 ET