by Will Strome - Columnist, NFLWeather.com | 09-16-2012 08:00
Neither the Carolina Panthers nor New Orleans Saints looked particularly strong in week one, but one side will breath easier after earning their first divisional win of the season following Sunday’s soggy matchup in Charlotte.
While the Panthers are off to an 0-1 start in the NFC South following a dismal performance in Tampa Bay, a win at home against the Saints would bury the division’s preseason favorite in the cellar. A task that is much easier said than done. But if a rookie quarterback can storm into the Superdome and stun Drew Brees and the Saints, who’s to say Cam Newton can’t do it at home in the rain?
With a 40% chance of rain both leading up to and during the game as reported by NFLWeather.com, Bank of America Stadium’s grass field will be a slick one. Thunderstorms are possible after 9AM which hopefully will have little to no impact on the 1PM kickoff and light winds maxing around 5 mph will be swirling northeast.
The harder the rain, the more each side will focus on building a solid ground game early. And both teams have zero shortage of functional backs for various game situations. However, despite the depth both the Saints and Panthers struggled tremendously to build any sort of running game a week ago. Given both sides were trailing in each of their week one match ups, but they combined for a pathetic 23 total rushing plays between the two (10 for CAR, 13 for NO). Expect this to change and expect both coaches to maximize the work load for the running backs this week.
If rain forces Drew Brees to his short passing game and having to hand off to his backs, the Panthers can keep this one close. Of the backs behind Brees, Mark Ingram got the most touches with six for only 15 yards followed by Pierre Thomas with four carries for 17 yards in their 40-32 loss at home to the Washington Redskins. In muddy short yardage and goal line situations, Ingram will be an easy go to. But if that grass field starts getting torn up and worn down, head coach Ron Rivera will look to Thomas to turn it up field.
Darren Sproles didn’t get any carries in week one but he made his presence known in the flats catching passes out of the backfield. Sproles had five receptions for 35 yards and a crucial fourth quarter touchdown and two-point conversion that helped spark the Saints’ short but no cigar comeback. If Brees has any issues gripping the wet ball, short passes to Sproles will be common.
But Brees has an arsenal of receiving options. Devery Henderson is still out but redzone target and slot receiver Lance Moore more than made up for his absence with 120 yards on six receptions and a touchdown. Tight End Jimmy Graham also hauled in a score along with six grabs for 85 yards and continuing to prove he’s seemingly unstoppable for any linebacker to cover. Marques Colston is also a healthy option for Brees who completed 24 of 52 attempts for 339 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions last week. With overcast and a slick surface, Brees will be exchanging a number of those passing attempts with handing off to his running backs and focusing his passing game on slanting receivers and short routes.
Unfortunately for the Saints, their Jonathan Vilma-less defense have to once again prepare for an explosive quarterback with just as much an eye for an open receiver as he does an open seam for a 40 yard scamper. Cam Newton didn’t put up crazy numbers in the Panthers 16-10 road loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but something Carolina fans should be looking forward to is how poorly the Saints defense did against rookie sensation Robert Griffith III.
Similarly to when Newton burst onto the NFL scene a year ago, RG3 had a solid 19 of 26 performance for 320 yards and two touchdowns. He also had nine rushes for 42 yards and in perhaps the most impressive stat of all, zero turnovers. Numbers very familiar to Carolina’s franchise QB.And in order to have any chance of dealing New Orleans their second loss in as many games, Newton has to avoid the turnovers and provide substantial offense both in the air and on the ground. Last week, Carolina’s ground game was atrocious; 10 net yards rushing. Even the addition of former San Diego Charger Mike Tolbert reuniting with Rivera wasn’t enough to make even the smallest of dents in Tampa Bay’s defense. DeAngelo Williams took his six touches and turned them into -1 yards on the ground while Tolbert’s lone carry was for two yards. Newton’s rushing attempts were no different, five carries for four yards.
A lack of commitment to the ground game was obvious in week one but with thunderstorms looming the Panthers will need to get something going from at least one back. Like the Saints’ situation, Carolina will work to open up holes and seal off the second level for Williams to break out some big runs. In short yardage, Tolbert is the bruising favorite.But by the end of the day, it shouldn’t be a surprise if Newton leads both sides in rushing. Any chance he has to cut upfield and make a few juke moves in the mud, few defensive backs will be excited about taking down that big body one on one. As much as Newton will look for Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and tight end Greg Olsen; he’ll be looking to pick up a few yards on the ground just as much. And that right there is the difference maker in the weather; Cam Newton’s ability to see the field and provide offense with his arm and his legs.
If New Orleans can contain Cam, Carolina is in serious trouble. But if the Panthers can keep it close and let Newton run the show, Drew Brees and company might be sitting at an unlikely 0-2. Time of possession will be key in this rainy, muggy divisional rivalry and the team who can keep grinding it out on the ground best will take it.
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