September 16, 2012

Saints Run, Gunned Down by Newton, 35-27

The sputtering Saints offense is like a misfiring engine, lurching and stalling down the road and leaving everyone around with a puzzled look.

The defense meanwhile would have a few bright spots but were mostly thrashed by the Panther run game, to the tune of 219 yards on the ground and 253 passing.

The defense was unaided by the healthy return of starting CB Jabari Greer, as Newton picked on fellow starter Patrick Robinson and victimized rookie CB Corey White.  Newton completed five passes of more than 20 yards, on just 20 pass attempts, and led his team with 71 yards rushing including a 40-yard keeper himself.

This same Panthers team was stopped for 10 yards rushing last week against Tampa Bay.

A dominating first drive was executed by perfection on the opening kickoff Sunday, an 11-play, 5:21 drive moved 80 yards with relative ease, aided by five catches by Darren Sproles that produced gains of 5, 18, 3, 25 and 3 yards before Brees found TE Jimmy Graham in the front of the end zone for the score.

But on the second drive, backed up deep against his own drive, Brees rolled right and under duress in the end zone, threw a weak pass that was intercepted and walked in for a touchdown.

Brees moved the offense again, but the drive stalled at the Carolina 4 with dropped passes by Lance Moore then Graham at the goal line.

Brees finished 31/49 with 325 yards passing with a score, but the difference in this game would prove to be his early bad decision - trying to do too much in a bad situation gave the Panthers an easy score and early excitement when the Saints were otherwise dominating.  Another interception by Brees would snuff out of the Saints' desperation hopes, leaving the Saints' QB with 4 touchdowns and 4 interceptions so far this season.

By the late second quarter, the Panthers had re-established control.  Steve Spagnuolo's defense had one fantastic goal line stand in the tank today - spotting Cam Newton a 40-yard keeper option carry but then stuffing Newton twice at the New Orleans 4 yard line.  On fourth down and an inch, Will Smith and Roman Harper stuffed Newton, who flipped the ball to Mike Tolbert's feet in the flat and lost yardage.  That big stand with 11:53 left in the first half was a short momentum gain for the Saints.

On the next drive, Newton escaped 3rd and 15 with a fantastic 35-yard catch by WR Steve Smith, who got behind CB Patrick Robinson, who never turned for the ball and allowed the catch.  RB Jonathan Stewart was uncontested on a 17-yard screen pass into the end zone three plays later and the Panthers took at 14-13 lead.

After the Brees threw three incomplete passes, Newton led the Panthers down the field again, picking up 19 yards on 3rd and 10 to WR Brandon Lafell, who also had a 25-yard end around carry on the drive on a Statue of Liberty fake.  Mike Tolbert rushed in from two yards out with :14 left in the half.  The Panthers had reversed momentum and seized control from the Saints at halftime.

The Saints were shut out in the third quarter, with a three-and-out followed by a 3rd and 5 intentional grounding call that backed the Saints out of field goal range.  The Panthers used a 20-yard pass to Lafell, 16 and 27 yard carries by Stewart and Williams and a pass interference call on Patrick Robinson that moved the ball to the New Orleans 3.  The Panthers capped that quick six-play, 80-yard drive with a touchdown rush by Williams, giving the home team a 28-13 lead.

The Saints managed some counter attack on the next drive, using a 29-yard strike from Brees to Colston and hard running by Pierre Thomas.  Mark Ingram capped the drive with a one-yard TD plunge to pull the Saints within 8.

But Newton went for the jugular on the next drive with no intent of allowing the Saints back in the game.  Newton hit a wide-open Steve Smith at the right sideline - with literally no one around him as rookie Corey White ran with the inside receiver.  Smith had to be chased down 66 yards later.  Newton, running a hurry-up offense to keep the Saints defense on their heels, kept the ball and bulled in from five yards out to push the lead back to 15.

Pierre Thomas did all he could to keep the Saints in the game, including ripping off a 48-yard carry off right tackle that was finished with a vicious, leveling stiff-arm on S Charles Godfrey.  Thomas finished with one of his better career days, 110 yards rushing on just 9 carries and four catches for 33 yards.  Sproles led the Saints with 128 yards receiving on 13 catches.

But four plays later at the Carolina 24, Brees would get hassled, fumble, picked it up and throw incomplete on fourth and four, turning the ball over on downs with 7:09 left in the game.

A three and out forced by the defense, which included stuffing Tolbert on 3rd and 2, gave the ball back to the Saints at their own 19 with 4:49 left.  Brees led a 12-play, 2:54 drive that featured a 3rd and 5 strike to Jimmy Graham for six yards, a 17-yard connection with Graham, a 24-yard pickup by Sproles and a 10-yard strike to Colston just short of the goal line.  Brees snuck in the remaining yardage for the score, which a replay review upheld.

Brees got the ball back with :48 left, but gave up his slim final hopes with a late throw to Graham over the middle, picked off by LB Jon Beason.

Brees gave the Saints a scare in the second half when DE Greg Hardy crushed him.  Chase Daniel warmed up for a moment as Brees limped off the field.  Trainers examined Brees and he remained in the game with a wrap on his left foot.

The Saints are 0-2 for the first time since 2007.  It isn't a great sample set, but the Saints have never finished with a winning record in 18 previous seasons starting 0-2.

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