The New Orleans Saints will face a very familiar opponent in their first playoff game since 2013. After defeating the Carolina Panthers twice in the regular season, the Saints once again take on their NFC South rival in the Wild Card round. It may seem like a daunting task to beat the same team three times in one season, however history is on the Saints side. Teams are 13-7 when facing an opponent in the postseason after beating them twice in the regular season.
Since the Saints defeated Carolina by 10 or more points in both regular season showdowns, this appears to be the best matchup the Saints could have hoped for in the first round of the playoffs. However, the playmaking ability of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, and the strength of their run defense should not be underestimated.
Here’s what New Orleans needs to do in order to complete a three-game sweep of the Panthers, and keep their Superbowl dreams alive.
New Orleans Saints Wild Card Preview: A Familiar and Favorable Matchup
Establish Running Game
New Orleans will have to once again try to overcome a Panthers run defense that has been one of the NFL’s best this year. Carolina finished the season with the third fewest rushing yards and rushing touchdowns allowed. The strength of the Panthers defense helped them reach the postseason despite an inconsistent offense, yet the Saints are one of the few teams that have had success running against Carolina this season.
New Orleans gained 149 rushing yards in week three at Carolina, and 148 in week 13 at home against the Panthers. These are the two highest rushing totals against the Panthers defense this season, and it helped the Saints score 34 points on them in their first meeting, and 31 in the second. No other team scored more than 30 points against Carolina in 2017.
Saints running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram have shared a historic season. Last week, they became the first running back tandem in NFL history to both gain at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage in a single season. Kamara and Ingram also combined for 25 offensive touchdowns in 2017 on their way to becoming the focus of the Saints offense. However, their production on the ground has declined in recent weeks.
After combining for 100 or more rushing yards for eight straight weeks, Kamara and Ingram have failed to reach the 100-yard mark in three of their last four games. Part of the problem has been a banged up offensive line. Left tackle Terron Armstead, right guard Larry Warford, and backup guard Senio Kelemete have all missed time due to injury in that four-game span. Fortunately, Warford and Kelemete are healthy, while Armstead is listed as questionable for Sunday and expects to play.
Limit Greg Olsen
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen missed both regular season games against New Orleans due to injury, but he’s been a nightmare for the Saints defense in recent years. In his last five matchups with New Orleans, Olsen has caught 37 passes for 462 yards and three touchdowns, and he figures to be the biggest threat for the Saints pass defense on Sunday.
Olsen hasn’t made a huge impact this season, with 17 receptions, 191 receiving yards and one touchdowns in seven games while struggling to stay healthy. However, he’s one of the few receiving threats left on the Panthers roster. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin was traded away earlier in the season, and receivers Damiere Byrd and Curtis Samuel were recently added to injured reserve. Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey did catch nine passes for 101 yards against New Orleans in week three, but he was held to 33 receiving yards on five catches in week 13.
The Saints are limited in the ways they can gameplan against Olsen. He’s the first elite tight end they’ve faced since Rob Gronkowski burned the Saints defense for 116 yards and a touchdown in week two. In that matchup with the New England Patriots, New Orleans shadowed Gronkowski with safety Kenny Vaccaro, but he was added to injured reserve last month. The Saints also have three linebackers on IR, leaving Craig Robertson as their only decent cover linebacker. Either Robertson, or strong safety Vonn Bell will likely shadow Olsen for most of the game.
Pressure Cam Newton
Newton has played inconsistently as he’s battled through different injuries this season. He has finished four games with a passer rating of 120.0 or better, but also has five games with a rating below 60.0, including a career-low 31.5 rating last week against the Atlanta Falcons. Nonetheless, Newton is still a potent dual-threat quarterback who is difficult for any defense to defend.
New Orleans seems to have found an effective strategy for limiting Newton this season. On passing downs, they spread out their defensive line with their linebackers on the line of scrimmage to fill in the gaps. It allows the Saints edge rushers to surround Newton, while ensuring there are no inside lanes for him to scramble through and escape the pocket.
This strategy has resulted in a combined six sacks and three interceptions on Newton this season. Newton meanwhile threw for a total of 350 yards and two touchdowns in those two games. He hasn’t had much room to run against New Orleans either, aside from a 32-yard scramble late in the game in week 13.
Depending on how they decide to cover Olsen, the Saints may need to adjust their gameplan for Newton. If they end up shadowing Olsen with a linebacker, that could create more holes in the pocket for Newton to escape. On the other hand, if the Saints stack the line, that will open up room for Olsen underneath. Finding the right balance in their front seven to minimize both Olsen and Newton will be crucial for New Orleans.