PANTHERS // SAINTS OVERVIEW
Stunningly, the Panthers have lost seven games in a row, and they now sit at 6-9 before traveling to New Orleans to take on the 13-2 Saints (13-1 in their last 14 games). The Panthers went 5-3 in Charlotte this year, but they have won only one game on the road — and this week, they are giving the ball to third-string, undrafted rookie quarterback Kyle Allen. On the other side of this game, the Saints have nothing to play for with the 1 seed already locked up for the NFC playoffs — putting this team in position to play starters for a couple series before allowing them to rest the remainder of the game. The Panthers have also intimated that they will “be smart” with Christian McCaffrey this week — who unsurprisingly played 83 of a possible 92 snaps last week, but whom the Panthers have no real cause to give a nearly-100% workload to this week. This game won’t quite have the look of a preseason game at the end (with only 45 active players on Sunday, it’s impossible for all starters to really be given rest), but Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and Mark Ingram will almost certainly see limited snaps, while CMC could see less than his usual workload on the other side of the ball. There are still some elements to consider in this game — but with the Saints likely to give limited reps to their core players and the Panthers playing with a third-string rookie (with their primary piece in McCaffrey in a difficult matchup and unlikely to see a full workload), this game does not come close to competing with the more clear-and-obvious spots on the slate.
PANTHERS PASS OFFENSE
Last week, we were able to dig into the things we knew about Taylor Heinicke (which was quite a bit for a 25-year-old non-prospect making his first career start), but this week, we are at just as much of a loss on Kyle Allen as the coaches for the Saints (and likely even the coaches for the Panthers) are. Allen was a top recruit coming out of high school, when he chose Texas A&M over Alabama, Ohio State, and several other top programs, but after two years at A&M, he transferred to Houston; and after sitting out a year, he bombed in Houston (four touchdowns // four interceptions) and then decided to enter the NFL Draft in April, where he went undrafted. He has spent portions of this season on the Panthers’ practice squad and portions of the season not playing at all. Now, he’ll take over as the starting quarterback for the final game of the season. Unlike Heinicke last week (who is now on I.R. with the left elbow injury that knocked him out of last week’s game for a couple series and had him playing in pain all day), Allen has had no time practicing with the first-team offense until this week, and he does not have years in Norv Turner’s system. We should expect a somewhat simplified playbook this week, with Allen likely asked to simply deliver short passes to his playmakers and hope they can generate action after the catch.
The best bet in this spot is to assume that even if Allen plays well, he will be unable to produce the sort of scores for any of these pass catchers that you “have to have” — creating a situation where it makes the most sense to simply find your pass catcher production in other spots rather than trying to figure out this one; but if you feel compelled to chase the Panthers’ pass catchers, it is worth noting that Curtis Samuel and D.J. Moore should continue to play heavy snaps this week, as they are “the young guys” that the Panthers would theoretically want to get a look at in a meaningless game, with Devin Funchess and Torrey Smith long-ago relegated to backseat status. This is likely Funchess’ final game with the Panthers, while Moore and Samuel are locked in as the wide receivers of the future.
Last week played out exactly the way we expected, with Curtis Samuel being relied on for “short-area looks, with a couple downfield targets mixed in” — seeing a monstrous 13 targets, with 10 coming within about eight yards of the line of scrimmage, plus a 15-yard out route coming from the slot and a pair of 9 routes on which he was targeted 30 yards downfield (Samuel’s box score would have looked a lot different last week had he and Heinicke connected on one of those downfield shots). We know a lot less about Allen and how comfortable the Panthers feel with him (and we also know less about how effectively he will be able to deliver the ball), but Samuel should again be leaned on in the short areas of the field, with a couple downfield looks potentially mixed in.
Moore’s connection with Heinicke last week was a lot less sharp, with the two connecting on only two of seven targets, for 19 total yards. Samuel has seen more targets than Moore in three of the Panthers’ last four games (with the two matching target counts in the other game in that stretch), but Moore’s excellent YAC ability still gives him a chance to hit if the targets are there.
Jarius Wright saw eight targets last week and went 7-69-0, though he and Heinicke had been together since Minnesota a few years back and had obvious rapport. It will be tougher this week for Wright to generate useful production, though you could obviously make a case that perhaps Allen will lean on his slot weapon — especially as his other primary outlet (tight end Ian Thomas) will have a difficult matchup against a Saints defense that has allowed the fifth fewest catches and the third fewest yards to the tight end position.
PANTHERS RUN OFFENSE
The starting point here is the matchup, as it should be noted — even if you want to take the approach I took last week (i.e., saying that there is no real reason to believe the Panthers will lighten the workload on CMC) — that the Saints have allowed the fewest rushing yards in the NFL, and no team in football has allowed fewer yards from scrimmage to running backs than the Saints. The Saints have given up the third fewest yards per carry in the NFL. Their 11 touchdowns allowed to running backs are the sixth fewest in the league. Furthermore — quite unlike last week (when nothing was said by anyone in the Panthers’ organization to imply that they planned to lighten the workload for CMC) — Ron Rivera said this week that the Panthers need to be smart with their star running back in Week 17. Expect McCaffrey to play in this difficult matchup, but be aware that there is a decent chance he does not play a full complement of snaps.
More than just about any other elite coach/quarterback combo, Sean Payton and Drew Brees care about stats and records. And while the Saints obviously have their sights set on a second Super Bowl championship, their first step along that path is 24 more receiving yards for Michael Thomas to break the Saints’ single-season receiving record, eight passing yards for Drew Brees to notch his 13th consecutive 4000-yard passing season, and one touchdown for Alvin Kamara to set the Saints’ all-time single-season touchdown record. The Saints will likely try to get these numbers out of the way in the first drive or two, and will then look to rest these primary pieces — though with the Saints saying nothing about how long their primary pieces will play, this is simply an educated guess. Brees has said we will definitely see Teddy Bridgewater playing this week (which means we will definitely see the Saints’ four core offensive pieces — and almost certainly Ted Ginn as well, whom the Saints place a high value on — moving to the sidelines as a unit), but there is no telling whether or not we will see these centerpieces play one series, two series, a little over a quarter, or the full first half. It seems highly unlikely that any of these players play into the second half, and “two or three series” seems like the likeliest bet; but barring more concrete, late-week news, the playing time expectations behind this unit remain a bit of a guessing game.
One thing we do know: the Saints will still be preparing and playing to win, even with some key pieces resting (speaking of records: the Saints have never won 14 games in a regular season in franchise history — something Payton has talked about this week). It’s difficult to bet on a quarterback who will not be playing a full complement of snaps, but we do know that Bridgewater was a borderline franchise quarterback as recently as 2016 before shredding his knee, and we know he will be fully capable of moving the Saints’ well-designed offense against a Panthers defense that ranks 26th in yards allowed per pass attempt. Carolina has been especially poor across the second half of the season, allowing the most passing touchdowns in the NFL since the start of Week 9, while giving up the sixth most passing yards and the fifth most yards per pass attempt. Carolina has allowed the league’s highest completion rate and the most yards on downfield passes in this span, and the only area where they have continued to excel has been in preventing yards after the catch.
Ultimately, the Saints focus almost exclusively on a short-area passing attack, which will make it difficult for any individual Saints pass catcher to take advantage with a slate-breaking score in an abbreviated appearance — but there is a decent chance we see Keith Kirkwood take over the Michael Thomas role for more than two quarters, while Tre’Quan Smith will almost certainly handle the Ginn role (which he handled for weeks while Ginn was out — largely to no avail — but which he certainly has the speed to make a difference in if things click in place). Kirkwood is the most intriguing play of the bunch, with a consistent role in this offense already in recent weeks (target counts since his first appearance in Week 10 of 2 // 5 // 3 // 3 // 2 // 2 // 4), and with 13 catches and two touchdowns in this stretch (with an impressive 10 of his receptions going for a first down). Kirkwood has the sort of big body that the Saints like to develop, and this could be a chance for him to see six to eight targets if Thomas and the rest of the Saints’ offensive centerpieces duck out early enough this week.
The tight ends have a good matchup against the Panthers, but this unit has been a guessing game even when we knew which other players would be playing; this group is truly just a dart throw this week.
In the backfield, it will likely be Kamara/Ingram early with Dwayne Washington and fullback Zach Line filling in down the stretch. There is a chance the Saints bring up another back before Sunday. If not, Washington could push for 12 to 15 touches if he gets onto the field early enough.
I had heavy interest in the Panthers’ offense last week, and I ended up going heavy in my ownership of a low-priced Heinicke/Samuel combo, while making a tight (and ultimately disappointing) call to lean Zeke over CMC as my high-priced back. This week, I’ll be looking to this offense again if I do indeed go with some mass-multi-entry play — but my focus will be more narrowed (with Samuel and possibly Moore the only pieces standing out), and none of these guys will be on my short list for my core teams. There were reasons last week to feel comfortable that we could get genuine, starting-caliber scores out of Heinicke, Samuel, and CMC. This week, the bets on this offense come with far less certainty — making them viable for large-field tourneys only.
I also won’t have interest in the Saints’ starters or in Teddy Bridgewater, Dwayne Washington, or Tre’Quan Smith outside of possibly taking one or two shots in large-field tourneys with a backups-heavy Saints stack in hopes of capturing some lightning — but I do think Kirkwood is an interesting building block this week in large-field tourneys, as he is locked into a few targets each game in this offense, and there is an outside chance he sees more like six to eight targets (instead of the two to three for which he can usually be penciled in). As with Thomas: these will be short-area looks that will require him to pick up YAC or score a touchdown in order to become truly valuable — but it’s not a crazy bet that the latter will happen, and the former is never outside the realm of reasonable possibilities.
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