The New Orleans Saints (1-2) earned their first win of the season on Sunday, defeating the Carolina Panthers (2-1) 34-13 behind quarterback Drew Brees’ three touchdowns and the defense’s three interceptions.
The Saints, who had struggled to consistently produce on offense in their first two games, found their rhythm early through efficient passing and an effective rushing attack. Brees threw for his lowest amount of yards this season (220), but finished with his highest completion percentage as he connected on 22 of his 29 attempts (75.9 percent).
New Orleans also had their highest amount of rushing yards so far with 149 yards. That is more than their previous two games combined, when they rushed for 60 yards against the Minnesota Vikings and 81 yards against the New England Patriots.
For the Panthers, the game started out strongly with a 15-play drive that lasted the first eight minutes of the first quarter. After reaching the Saints’ 8 yard line, quarterback Cam Newton was sacked on third down by New Orleans defensive end Cam Jordan and Carolina had to settle for a field goal.
Following that drive, the Panthers only managed one other field goal in the first half and failed to produce more long trips down the field. Newton threw three interceptions through the game, with two coming on back-to-back drives in the fourth quarter as Carolina was attempting to cut down the Saints’ lead.
The Panthers offense suffered a big loss during the last play of the first quarter. Top wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin’s leg was dragged underneath him following a tackle by New Orleans cornerback Ken Crawley. Benjamin was helped off the field by trainers and did not return to the game. He was seen on the sideline with his left knee wrapped in ice, which is the same knee the receiver had surgically repaired following an ACL tear in 2015. After losing star tight end Greg Olsen last week to a broken leg, the Panthers receiving corps faces a big challenge if Benjamin has to miss extended time.
Saints Defense Shows Up
Despite the Saints offense producing their best game this season, the main storyline for the team was the strong play from their defense. New Orleans’ defense has ranked in the bottom third of the NFL since 2014 and gave up the worst average passing yards per game to opponents in 2016. Coming into today’s game, the Saints had already given up an average of 512 yards in the first two games. The defense played well against the Panthers, though, limiting big plays and putting pressure on Newton.
In addition to earning their first takeaways of 2017, the New Orleans pass rush doubled their sack total for the season. The four hits delivered on Newton set Carolina back 28 total yards and brought the Saints’ total sacks on the season to seven.
Panthers Offense Has Reason for Concern
In addition to losing Benjamin early in the game, the rest of the Panthers offense continued their slow start to the 2017 season. After scoring just two touchdowns in the first two games, Carolina struggled again on Sunday with reaching the end zone. The long opening drive would have set a tone for the Panthers if they had scored a touchdown, but being held to a field goal continued the trend of red zone inefficiency (2-8). The only time Carolina made it into the end zone was off a three-yard run by Newton in the third quarter to make the score 24-13.
Despite getting his first rushing touchdown of the season, Cam Newton’s performance was one of the worst divisional games in his career. Typically the six-year veteran preys on the Saints’ secondary by taking shots downfield, but Sunday was a different story. Newton only managed 167 passing yards for the game and continued to have issues overthrowing receivers. After throwing his third interception, the former MVP was benched for the Panthers’ final two drives. He was replaced by backup quarterback Derek Anderson, who went two for seven with 17 yards.
After another week of underwhelming play, there is speculation Newton may still be rusty from his offseason surgery. The quarterback missed all of the 2017 preseason except for one drive as he recovered from labrum surgery on his throwing shoulder. Three weeks into the season, however, Carolina’s franchise player still appears to be less than one hundred percent and it’s affecting the rest of the offense. With Olsen out and Benjamin now nursing an injury, the Panthers’ offense will need Newton to regain his form before they reach the heart of their schedule.
- Panthers tight end Ed Dickson had only one catch off one target during Carolina’s first full game without Greg Olsen. The reception came in the waning seconds of the game when Anderson was under center for the Panthers. It was surprising to see Dickson not receive more of the workload this week, considering Olsen’s frequent use as a downfield threat. Although the eight-year veteran is not as good of a pass-catcher, the lack of attention he got from Newton was notable.
- After complaining to the media about his usage in the opening game, running back Adrian Peterson continued to receive occasional use the Saints offensive approach. The seven-time Pro Bowler rushed for 33 yards on nine attempts, with his longest rush being an 11-yard run in the fourth quarter. Peterson did, however, catch his first receptions of the season. He caught two passes for four total yards.
- This week saw another uptick in running back Christian McCaffrey’s production. The rookie caught a career-high nine passes for 101 yards and was on the field for 41 of Carolina’s 59 snaps. His best play was a 37-yard catch that helped extend a drive, and despite only rushing for 16 yards, McCaffrey helped display the offensive flexibility that caught Panthers’ attention when they drafted him. Look for Carolina to rely on McCaffrey even more as a receiver depending on the severity of Benjamin’s injury.
- After some drama last week involving trade talks, safety Kenny Vaccaro had a bounce-back performance against the Panthers. The four-year veteran was benched during the Saints Week 2 loss in New England after poor play and there were rumors that the safety might be on his way out of New Orleans. Vaccaro made his case to remain on the field, though, after making five combined tackles and picking off Newton in the fourth quarter. For now, the former first-round pick has turned things around.
- Wide receiver Curtis Samuel also made his first big play in a Panthers uniform on Sunday. The rookie ran a jet sweep for 31 yards during the second quarter, showing off his dangerous speed in an open field. Samuel could also be utilized by Carolina more if Benjamin is expected to miss extended time.
- The Panthers defense, which had not allowed a touchdown in their first two games, had much less success in pressuring the quarterback this week. Brees often had time and space to pick out his passes, and Carolina was able to manage just one sack for the game.
New Orleans will travel to London, England next weekend for a matchup with the Miami Dolphins. The Panthers will also be on the road next Sunday, visiting the reigning champion Patriots in Foxborough.