By Ted Fleming
They say that one man does not make a team, but there would few people that would argue after the Panthers won their first game of the year, besting the Saints 35-27 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte behind a potent running attack.
Jonathan Stewart returned from an ankle injury that caused him to miss the first game of the season, and also landed him as questionable for this game. He joined his running back partner DeAngelo Williams as the dual threat Carolina lacked in the loss to the Buccaneers a week ago, and faster than you can say “touchdown,” the former first-round pick had two of them with 78 yards of total offense igniting the Carolina offense.
Here is a breakdown of how the Panthers handed the Saints their second loss in two tried this season:
OFFENSE: GRADE B+
Expect a lot of high grades this year if key players stay healthy. What the loss to the Buccaneers clearly showed was without a running game the Panthers are just a mediocre offense; defenses can key on Cam Newton if they have a lead. That was not the case against the Saints because the two-headed monster of Stewart and Williams put their stamp on how the day would go.
Sure, there were big plays on the ground, Newton broke one for 40 (of a career best 71), DeAngelo Williams scampered for 27 (he had 69 on the day) and wide receiver Brandon LaFell even joined in with a reverse that went for 25, Carolina ran the ball 41 times and averaged 5.3 yards per carry, despite the fact that three attempts wound up being tackled for a loss. It didn’t matter because after Newton threw on the first play from scrimmage, the ground game opened up everything else.
Cam Newton threw the ball just 20 times connecting on 14 for 253 yards and a TD. He also rushed for his first touchdown of the year. Stewart and Williams combined for 120 of Carolina’s 219-yards and the ground game accounted for three scores, one each from Stewart, Williams and Mike Tolbert.
If there was one point in the game where momentum might have changed, it came with just 3:41 left in the half. From the shotgun, the Saints sent in a blitz from the right side but the offensive line picked it up, brilliantly giving Newton plenty of time to seek out Stewart for a 17-yard TD strike. After the play Newton did his trademark Superman pose as if ripping off his shirt and looked to the sky yelling. Steve Smith had been engaged with a defensive back for some time and after breaking off joined in the celebration.
The defense came up big on the following set of downs getting the Saints on a 3-and-out, leaving Newton to again lead his team down the field for another seven points. Those two late half scores gave Carolina a 21-13 lead they would not let go of the rest of the afternoon.
DEFENSE: GRADE C+
It is virtually impossible for anyone to get a perfect grade when playing the Saints, unless you can shut them down and shut them out. Even despite a solid performance, the Panthers D had a number of issues on Sunday, most notably coughing up 486 yards of total offense (and a bunch of that yardage was piled up because of problems tackling the man with the ball).
Quarterback Drew Brees is going to get his 300 yards against some of the best defenses in the league (he had 325 in this game), so the bottom line to have any chance of winning is to shut down the run just like the Buccaneers did to the Panthers last week. Carolina had their issues with Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram, who rumbled for a combined 163 yards—Thomas had 48 of his 110 on one play—yet still pulled off the victory.
Shortcomings notwithstanding, the Panthers did not get a sack of Brees until the 4:40 mark of the fourth quarter, but they were able to take him out of any rhythm he might have established by constantly being in his face and leaving a few bumps and bruises on the Purdue alum.
One such case came early in the game when the Saints were pinned back at the seven yard-line by a Brad Nortman punt, and on a second-and-eight Brees was forced out of the pocket and tried to connect with receiver David Thomas. The pass landed in the arms of Charles Godfrey for a Pick-six tying the game at seven.
There were a number of drops and misfires by Brees though the Panthers defense came through when they needed to.
Marques Colston did not have a reception until just under a minute left in the third, and possibly the biggest individual play on defense came at the 7:17 of the second as the big hand of Frank Alexander batted down a Brees attempt on a 3rd and 4 putting the brakes on a 57-yard drive forcing the Saints to settle for a field goal.
OFFENSIVE GAME BALL: Goes to Jonathan Stewart – 11 rushes for 51 yards, 1 catch for 17 yards, 2 TDs.
DEFENSIVE GAME BALL: Goes to Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott for an outstanding game plan.
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Ted Fleming is a freelance writer covering all things Carolina Panthers. His work can be found on Examiner.com.