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Getting into the end zone and stalling the Saints late spells a Panthers victory

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Dec 22, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) is sacked as Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy (76) comes from the left and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (41) holds Brees

I recently teamed up with Bryan Palmese, managing editor of Cat Crave, to exchange several questions around the upcoming matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers. I’ve attempted to come up with my five best questions in regards to the upcoming matchup.

1. Cam Newton hasn’t exactly flashed this season, as he hasn’t had a single 300-yard passing game this season. Is Cam suffering from a lack of targets, or is it a lack of time to pass the ball?

Newton has had a rough year and has struggled throughout the first eight games. The frustrating thing is that he struggled to run during the first four games, but settled in pretty well as an efficient passer. Then, he got his legs back under him in the fifth game, and has since struggled passing the ball. It’s like he’s stuck between two styles of play.

To answer your question though, I think the biggest issue plaguing Cam is a poor offensive line. The weak protection and run blocking in front of him has kept the Panthers from establishing a running game for six out of the eight games. Defenses have been bringing the pressure since the Panthers have to rely on the pass to score. The O-line is also not establishing a secure pocket for Newton to thrive in. Cam loves to move around in the pocket, but he needs a base to start from, and isn’t getting it. His receivers are getting open, but Newton is having a hard time getting the ball to them.

2. We’re nine weeks into the schedule, what is your overall assessment of the Panthers? What’s working? What’s not working? What needs to change?

My overall view of the Panthers is that they are simply not executing properly.

The offense will have games where Newton is efficient, doesn’t turn the ball over and Carolina wins the time-of-possession and field position game. However, once they get into the red zone, they shut down. Kicker, Graham Gano might find himself on a Pro-Bowl roster come 2015 at this rate.

Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen are working. Both big targets have been offensive beasts this season for the Panthers and when they succeed, the Panthers usually do as well. Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly have looked like the best linebacking tandem in the league and both have been dialed in since game one.

The running game is not working. There’s a lot of money tied up into the salaries of the backfield, but injuries have set six different running backs down for some part of the season. I honestly don’t think that Arian Foster or LeSean McCoy could run behind this horrific offensive line right now. It’s that bad.

The Panthers need to open up the offensive playbook and just let Cam be Cam. The read-option doesn’t really work if the offensive line can’t open up running lanes and the red zone efficiency is ranked 27th in the league. If Newton can start putting the ball in the end zone more than the four times that he has passed for this year, then I think we will start to see some positive changes.

3. How much of a boost will the Panthers get with the return of DeAngelo Williams? Do you believe the team should stick with Jonathan Stewart, or produce a one-two punch?

DeAngelo Williams, in my opinion, has had the best game of any Panthers’ running back this season. It happened in game one, he subsequently got injured late in that game and we have barely seen him since. I believe him being in uniform and contributing where he can will help this offense out.

I don’t believe he can do it on his own though, and will need both Jonathan Stewart and Chris Ogbonnaya to help shoulder the load. Williams is the kind of back that will nickel-and-dime you for two or three yards a pop, and then, boom – he hits a home run. OC Mike Shula relies heavily on ball-control and I think he will lean a lot on the running game this week. Stewart runs hard and rarely goes down after initial contact. However, he is getting a lot of carries, for minimal gains. He has to be frustrated, because he’s not failing because of a lack of effort. Rather, he has a porous offensive line in front of him opening up tiny holes and is being hit in the backfield too often.

Both running backs are not 100%, but this is one of those games on the big stage that if you can play, you do.

4. What is the one thing that the Panthers must do to defeat the Saints? Also, what lesser-known player should we be watching out for on Thursday Night?

Score touchdowns. Simply put, the Carolina Panthers are not doing this enough.

If a winner was decided by how much yardage you could rack up outside of the 20-yard lines, the Panthers would be 8-0. This offense needs to figure out how to cross the end zone for six points, rather than watching a Gano kick sail through the autumn night for three. Drew Brees and company are going to be coming to town with a heavy amount of confidence after last Sunday night’s win over Green Bay. Putting up points is a must for Carolina if they want to walk away with a win.

Saints’ fans need to be on the lookout for CB Josh Norman. He truly stepped up last week against Seattle after spending the past year in Ron Rivera’s doghouse. Norman’s intensity, heady play and confident approach on the boundary are something that is necessary against the New Orleans’ high-octane offense.

5. The Saints have not won in Carolina since 2011, and these two always seem to play close games. How do you see this one panning out?

I think the Panthers need this game more than the Saints do if they want to remain NFC South Champions. Over the past six games, Carolina is 1-4-1, so taking the home game of this series is imperative. Carolina knows that New Orleans is a much different team away from the friendly SuperDome, so they need to take advantage of the home field.

I’m hoping Roman Harper can aid OC Mike Shula, Cam Newton and the rest of the Panthers’ offense to little nuances or hints to the Saints’ defense.

I foresee the game being close and the Panthers’ defense stepping up late to stall a Drew Brees drive. Panthers – 28 Saints – 27

Be sure to keep up with Cat Crave on Twitter for all things related to the Carolina Panthers! Huge thanks to Bryan for your time! Enjoy the game tomorrow evening!

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