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Five things to look for in Saints at Panthers

Gameday! It took so much work, luck and drama to get back to .500 and after that #$%&show against the Broncos the Saints have to do to it all over against. This time in Carolina. A win puts the Saints at 5-5, pretty much ends the Panthers season, and gives the Saints their first sweep of Carolina since 2011. Here’s five things I’m looking for:

1. Is this pass rush for real?

The most fun Saints-Panthers games in the Cam Newton era have been when Junior Galette, Akiem Hicks and Cameron Jordan have mauled the Panthers’ o-line and hit Cam Newton repeatedly. The worst have been when Newton has time and lights up the defense. The 6 sacks against a pretty good Denver offensive line was unexpected and really encouraging. The Panthers will be missing tackle Michael Oher and center Ryan Kalil has missed games and is just returning from injury. There’s a decent chance they’ll be able to keep this going, especially with Sheldon Rankins in the mix and playing well. I’m looking to see if the Saints can get pressure on Cam Newton, because frankly, doing that is the only way they win. As always, hitting Cam comes at a premium. Last time the Saints played the Panthers, they did get 2 sacks, so I’m optimistic.

2. Protecting Brees

This Panthers team has been lights out defensively pretty much since the Saints put up 41 points on them in the Superdome. Since then, they’ve given up 16.7 points per game and produced 15 sacks in just three weeks. And without that Eric Berry pick six last week, it would be 14 points yielded per game. They’re playing a lot better football even if their secondary is exploitable. Thursday is a high of 71 and a low of 43 in Charlotte with no real threat of wind or rain – those are good things. But still, protection Brees will be tough. As good as the Saints were against the terrifying Broncos pass rush, they’ll need to do the same against the Panthers. It’s the interior in particular that will be tested – Kelemete, Unger and Evans. Kawaan Short and Star Lotulelei are very tough to handle.

3. Avoiding special teams disasters

In almost every loss this year, and almost every one of them has been by one score, I can count a disastrous special teams play by the Saints that affected the outcome. I’m not asking for 55 yard field goals, returns for touchdowns or even turnovers here. I’m just asking for a clean game with no disaster plays. Greg McMahon, can you help us out? I’d like to sit through the entirety of this game without special teams affecting the outcome so significantly. Is that too much to ask? Just be decent. This also means limited Ted Ginn, Jr.’s impact on the game as a returner which just became harder with Thomas Morstead’s ankle injury (he’s expected to play). Another thing to keep an eye on is the left footed punter the Panthers just added. Another layer of complexity in practice…

4. The Michael Thomas bounce back

Thomas had 6 targets on Sunday and 3 resulted in turnovers. He had the two fumbles, of course, and a tipped target that went for an interception. Pretty miserable stuff. It’s the lone dark cloud on an otherwise fantastic rookie season, though. And in case you forgot, he had a solid 5 catches for 78 yards and a touchdown against this secondary last time these two teams played. Much like Ingram responded after a miserable mistake – I’m expecting Thomas to do the same. It’s what great players do. #shhhhh

5. The Delvin Breaux bounce back

Breaux didn’t look like himself Sunday. Demaryius Thomas is a very good receiver, though. He was less affected by Breaux’s press and strength than most, and he’s fast enough to run away from a player just coming back from a broken leg. This is a short turnaround and I almost wonder if the Saints might sit Breaux for this one. If he plays, it’ll be interesting to see how he rebounds because I expect him to line up against Kelvin Benjamin a good bit.