The battle for the NFC South starts early this season for the Panthers, who welcome the New Orleans Saints to town on Sunday. Kickoff set is for 1:00 on WBT. Both teams are coming off season opening wins – the Panthers beat the Jets, while the Saints dismantled the Packers 38-3. While the Saints defense was certainly impressive in that game, it was Famous Jameis who stole the show – with Drew Brees now in the broadcast booth, Jameis Winston made his debut as the Saints starter and threw five touchdown passes. More importantly, he avoided the costly turnovers that plagued his career with the Bucs. “Jameis did a great job last week,” said Panther coach Matt Rhule. “His ability to slide and move in the pocket, attack you up the field, attack you outside the pocket, throw the ball down the field, run the ball – that’s a dynamic element to the game that we have to prepare for.”
The Panthers won’t have to prepare for All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas, he’s out after ankle surgery. So second year player Marquez Callaway starts alongside Deonte Harris, who is only five foot six but has explosive speed. Receiver turned tight end Juwan Johnson had a pair of touchdowns last week. They’re not the focus of this Saints offense though – the star is Alvin Kamara. The All-Pro running back is a dual threat who picked up nearly 1700 combined yards and 21 touchdowns last season. So what makes him so good? “Alvin Kamara has elite, Hall of Fame-type contact balance,” said Rhule. “You know you hit him and he bounces off people. He’s unbelievably hard to tackle.”
Of course, the Panthers have their own outstanding dual threat running back in Christian McCaffrey, who picked up 187 combined yards against the Jets last week. He’ll face a Saints defense that ranked 4th in the league last season and picked up where they left off, holding the Packers to just 43 yards on the ground. The Saints have had an outstanding defense for several years now, anchored by Pro Bowl defensive end Cam Jordan. Fellow defensive end Marcus Davenport will miss this game with a shoulder injury, but All-Pro linebacker Demario Davis is a star alongside middle backer Kwon Alexander. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore is questionable after thumb surgery but there is still plenty of talent in the secondary, including safeties Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins, who combined for six of the Saints league-leading 18 interceptions last season.
This matchup will no doubt be a challenge for the Panthers, but they’re ready. The Saints have won 9 of the last 11 in this series, including four straight, and the Panthers would like to flip that script. And of course, it’s a division game, and they’d like to steal one of those early in the season. “All divisional games are a notch up, I think everyone knows that,” said Panther defensive lineman Daquan Jones. “It’s going to be huge.”
by Sharon Thorsland
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