News & Analysis

NFL Week 17 PFF ReFocused: New Orleans Saints 33, Carolina Panthers 7

Jan 3, 2021; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) looks to pass as center Erik McCoy (78) blocks in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints hammered the Carolina Panthers 33-7 to close out the NFL regular season in Charlotte. The win clinches the No. 2 seed in the NFC for the Saints, who saw the Green Bay Packers clinch first place and a bye with their win over the Bears in Chicago.

However, New Orleans will now be able to get their revenge on Matt Nagy and the Chicago Bears, as the Saints will host them next week in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

Editor's note: All of PFF's grades and advanced stats from this game will be finalized and made available to ELITE subscribers within 24 hours of the final whistle.

Story Of The Game

It was an abysmal effort by the Panthers in what was their last game of the season. Teddy Bridgewater and Phillip Walker combined to throw five interceptions — those five picks were tied for the most by the Saints in a game in their history.

Carolina finishes 5-11, but there were some flashes throughout the season. They’ll end the campaign having generated positive expected points added (EPA) per play on offense at 0.02, up from -0.08 a season ago. Even with shaky play at quarterback, the team found ways to generate offense through its dynamic playmakers and playcaller.

That quarterback situation will have to be fixed going into 2021. While Bridgewater had his moments from a clean pocket, throwing 14 touchdowns to five interceptions when the pass rush was kept at bay, he was abysmal under pressure, averaging only 5.3 yards per attempt with a touchdown and eight interceptions while under duress.

The defense will finish 20th in EPA allowed per play but improved as the season went on. Over their last six games, the defense held opponents to a negative EPA per play mark four times. That would put them in the top 10 in the NFL during that time frame.

The Saints head into the playoffs with a two-game winning streak. Their defense has been lights out for most of the season, finishing in the top 10 in EPA allowed per play over the whole season at -0.02. The run defense was their best aspect, as they end the regular season ranked in the top five in EPA allowed per run play. This might bode well for their playoff game against the Bears, who may look to take the ball out of Mitchell Trubisky’s hands.

Drew Brees is certainly not the same quarterback he was even last season, but with the talent around him — assuming that talent is healthy — they will be in a great position to make a run in the playoffs.

Staying out of long-yardage situations will be vital if they want to keep the offense clicking. Their fourth-ranked rushing attack in terms of EPA generated per play should help; the Saints also don’t allow a lot of negative plays when they run the ball.

If the offensive line protects Brees, he can still deliver some vintage performances, but his yards per attempt average under pressure has dropped from the 7.7-yard mark in 2019 to 5.8 this season. They need to keep him upright.

Rookie Watch

Cesar Ruiz played a total of 744 snaps on the season. His play wasn’t great, though he did improve as the season went on. After a three-game stretch where he allowed 16 total pressures to the Bears, Bucs and 49ers, he calmed down and only allowed seven pressures over his remaining five games.

Rookie pass-catchers were forced into action more than the Saints would have hoped before the season started, and Marquez Callaway and Adam Trautman finish the regular season at 1.47 yards per route run and 1.16 yards per route run, respectively.

Defensively, only two rookies played a significant number of snaps this season. Malcolm Roach finishes with nine tackles and six pressures, while Zack Baun closes out the campaign with five tackles.

The Panthers were forced into using their youth season on defense throughout the season. Seven Panthers defensive rookies played over 100 snaps for the team, with Jeremy Chinn and Derrick Brown leading the charge.

Brown finishes with 34 total pressures while Chinn tallied 14. Chinn also added an interception and five pass breakups, although he did miss 18 tackles.

Running back Rodney Smith was the only Panthers offensive rookie to play over 100 snaps. He finishes with four missed tackles forced on 50 total touches.

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