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Carolina Panthers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers

by Sharon Thorsland

The Panthers are on the road for the third straight week against a division foe, this time the New Orleans Saints. The Saints are having their own struggles this season, they’ve lost three straight to fall to 5-7 on the year, and the boo birds have been coming out at the Caesar’s Dome.

So what’s been the problem? Injuries to key players, a porous run defense and a lackluster offense have all been factors. Quarterback Derek Carr has not played up to expectations since arriving in New Orleans, and now he’s dealing with a concussion. That means veteran Jameis Winston could get the start. “Famous Jameis” has struggled with accuracy issues over his career but he can be dangerous. Not to mention the Saints have plenty of weapons on offense, even with star receiver Michael Thomas on IR with a knee injury. Second year receiver Chris Olave has 890 yards and three touchdowns on the season, and tight ends Juwan Johnson and Jimmy Graham are matchup nightmares. And of course, there’s All-Pro running back Alvin Kamara. “People say what they want to about Jameis but he can get in and air it out just like anyone else,” said Panthers defensive end Derrick Brown. “Hand the ball off the Alvin Kamara, I mean he’s a great running back in the backfield. We got a great match-up ahead of us.”

The Saints most dangerous weapon might be Taysom Hill. The backup quarterback has five touchdowns on the season, lining up at running back, receiver, and kick returner. “He’s a problem,” said Panther linebacker Brian Burns. “You have to be aware of where he’s at and you have to know what he can do in those specific positions. And you have to get numbers to him because he is a physical runner.” Hill and the Saints will face a Panther defense that has been okay against the run but is 4th in the NFL allowing under 181 passing yards per game. That’s pretty impressive for a group that has had all sorts of injuries to multiple starters and backups.

The once-vaunted Saints defense has taken a nose dive this season, particularly against the run. They’re giving up over 125 yards per game, and also struggled to get to the quarterback with only 19 sacks (tied with the Panthers for 30th in the league). All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan anchors the front line, with Pro Bowl linebacker Demario Davis leading the team in tackles. The Saints secondary is banged up, with star cornerback Marshon Lattimore and starting safety Marcus Maye on IR. But they still rank 7th in the league allowing just 197 passing yards per game, and still have Pro Bowl safety Tyrann Mathieu, who has three interceptions. The Panthers have struggled all season to get anything going in the passing game, and it doesn’t look to get any easier this week.

Still, this is a winnable game. The run game was solid last week behind Chuba Hubbard, and the Panthers will actually have the same starting five on the offensive line for two weeks in a row. Throw in the rivalry factor and a little revenge after losing to the Saints on MNF in week two, and the Panthers have plenty of motivation for this one. “Our biggest thing is just finishing strong,” said linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill. “Just going out on a high note, focusing game by game and finishing strong.”