Panthers still looking for first win as Saints come to town Sunday

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 23, 2022

By STEVE REED

AP Sports Writer

CHARLOTTE — The Carolina Panthers are looking for their first takeaway — along with their first win — and history suggests New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston could help them solve both problems on Sunday.

Winston has struggled mightily throughout his career versus the Panthers.

He’s 4-6 in 10 appearances vs. Carolina with nearly twice as many interceptions (16) as touchdowns passes (nine). He’s been sacked 36 times by the Panthers, turning the ball over eight times on fumbles.

While the majority of his struggles came as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Winston didn’t fare any better wearing a Saints jersey last season as he was limited to 111 yards passing, intercepted twice and sacked four times in a lopsided 26-7 loss at Carolina.

“Obviously last year (at Carolina) wasn’t a great showing for any of us — offense, defense, kicking game,” said Saints coach Dennis Allen.

“We did not play well when we went out there and I think offensively it was a real challenge in the fact that a majority of the offensive staff was out with COVID in that game.”

The Panthers defense failed to get a takeaway in the first two weeks, but their players are well aware of Winston’s habit of turning the ball over and will look to take advantage of it.

“As everybody knows he has a record of throwing picks and we are just looking for one,” said linebacker Frankie Luvu. “When they do come we are going to make the most of it.”

Said Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson: “We know once the floodgates open, they come in bunches. We’re just going to keep working at it.”

Winston, who has been playing with a back injury, is coming off a rough week against Tampa Bay.

He was intercepted three times and was sacked six times in a 20-10 loss with running back Alvin Kamara sidelined with an injury. The Saints were limited to just three points until a late touchdown reception by Michael Thomas.

“I will do a better job of staying mellow in the madness,” Winston said.

HEISMAN HYPE

As long as Winston is able to play through his back injury, the game will match a pair of QBs, who also were Heisman Trophy winners.

Winston won it in the 2013 season, when he led Florida State to a national title. Mayfield, who began his college career as a walk-on at Texas Tech, won his Heisman in 2017 with Oklahoma.

Both quarterbacks also were overall No. 1 draft choices by teams for which they no longer play: Winston in 2015 by Tampa Bay, and Mayfield in 2018 by Cleveland.

“I got a lot of respect for Baker, just for the story, being a walk-on and then winning the Heisman,” Winston said. “He plays with a tremendous amount of swag, which is exciting to see as a player.”

SACKED

Winston was sacked four times at Atlanta in Week 1, and it only got worse in Week 2, when he was sacked six times in a loss to Tampa Bay.

But the quarterback declines to place the blame on his pass protection.

“I felt it was outstanding — both the games,” Winston said. “Our offensive line is solid. I’ve got to do a better job getting the ball out of my hands.”

Allen has agreed to some extent, saying the blocking hasn’t always been on point, but that Winston also was indecisive in the pocket at times.

BALL SECURITY

Allen has placed a renewed emphasis on ball security after seeing the Saints done in by five turnovers in the final 17 minutes of their 20-10 loss to Tampa Bay. The game was tied at 3-3 before the first of those turnovers.

“We have to understand the value and importance of protecting the football,” Allen said. “I know that turnovers are part of this game, they happen, but our whole mindset has to be that we have to limit those mistakes that cost you from winning games.”

CHANGING IT UP

With the Panthers passing game looking stale, coach Matt Rhule suggested it might be time to add some wide receivers to the mix.

That means Terrace Marshall Jr. and Rashard Higgins could figure into the game plan this week. So far almost all of the reps have gone to D.J. Moore, Robbie Anderson and Shi Smith, who had two key drops against the New York Giants last week.

“I think we have to start playing more guys at the receiver position,” Rhule said. “I think we want those guys out there; they’re good players for us. But I think Terrace is coming on, Rashard’s a guy we know can play. We just probably need to get those guys on the field more.

“We’ve been no-huddle at times; it’s hard to rotate guys in. Those guys get worn out, those crucial downs, so maybe on those third downs, we’re not playing as fast as we could be playing.”

THIRD DOWN ISSUES

The Panthers offense has really struggled on third downs.

Baker Mayfield is just 7 of 14 passing for 54 yards with one interception and no touchdowns and the Panthers have converted just 26.1% of their opportunities as dropped passes, penalties and down-and-distance issues have all led to the lack of production.

“I don’t know what our conversion percent on third down was but it wasn’t very good,” Mayfield said. “Getting down there and getting field goals instead of touchdowns in the red zone. That will kill us.”

Third downs critical

NEW ORLEANS (1-1) at CAROLINA (0-2)

Sunday, 1 p.m. EDT, Fox

OPENING LINE: Saints by 2 1/2, according to FanDuel SportsBook.

AGAINST THE SPREAD: New Orleans 1-1, Carolina 0-2.

SERIES RECORD: Saints lead 29-26.

LAST MEETING: Saints beat Panthers 18-10 on Jan. 2, 2022, in New Orleans.

LAST WEEK: Saints lost to Buccaneers 20-10; Panthers lost to Giants 19-16.

SAINTS OFFENSE: OVERALL (17), RUSH (9), PASS (18), SCORING (t-19).

SAINTS DEFENSE: OVERALL (17), RUSH (23), PASS (11), SCORING (t-21).

PANTHERS OFFENSE: OVERALL (28), RUSH (20), PASS (30), SCORING (t-15).

PANTHERS DEFENSE: OVERALL (9), RUSH (29), PASS (3), SCORING (t-18).

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL: Saints minus-3; Panthers minus-3.

SAINTS PLAYER TO WATCH: WR Michael Thomas is making an early play for Comeback Player of the Year with 11 catches for 122 yards and three touchdowns this season. He’ll face a Carolina defense that has been stout for the past two seasons against the pass and ranks third in the NFL this year.

PANTHERS PLAYER TO WATCH: RB Christian McCaffrey is coming off his first 100-yard rushing game since 2019 and is starting to see more action in the offense after getting just 14 touches in the team’s season-opening loss to the Cleveland Browns. The Panthers have managed just 53 and 58 offensive plays in their first two games — well below the NFL average — so McCaffrey’s touches could increase if the Panthers can stay on the field.

KEY MATCHUP: Panthers third down offense vs. Saints third down defense: Carolina is converting a meager 26.1% (6 of 23) of its third down conversions, which ranks 29th in the league. The Saints third down defense has been pretty good, allowing opponents to convert just 33.3% of their chances. That’s tied for eighth best in the league. If those two statistical categories hold, it could be another long day for QB Baker Mayfield and the Panthers offense. Mayfield is just 7 of 14 for 54 yards with one interception on third downs.

KEY INJURIES: Saints RB Alvin Kamara sat out Week 2 against the Buccaneers, but is hopeful to return this week. Look for Mark Ingram to fill in again if Kamara is scratched again. … QB Jameis Winston is dealing with a back injury, but has been playing through it. … The Panthers will be monitoring the status of CB Donte Jackson, who suffered a hamstring injury in last week’s loss to the Giants…. Panthers rookie LB Brandon Smith is still dealing with a thigh injury.

SERIES NOTES: New Orleans has had Carolina’s number in recent years, winning nine of the past 11 matchups — most of those with Drew Brees at quarterback. … The Panthers have faced the Saints more than any other franchise in team history. This will be the 56th meeting, including the postseason. … The Saints won the only playoff meeting in a 2017 wild-card game.

STATS AND STUFF: This is the Saints third straight game against an NFC South foe to open the season. … New Orleans has allowed 10 sacks, second most in the NFL. … QB Jameis Winston has nine TDs and one INT for a 103.4 rating in his past four road starts. … RB Alvin Kamara has 803 scrimmage yards and five TDs in his past seven road games. … RB Mark Ingram has at least 70 yards from scrimmage in his past six games vs. Carolina. … Rookie WR Chris Olave had five catches for team-high 80 yards in Week 2. … The Panthers have lost seven straight games at home going back to last season. Their previous home win came against the Saints on Sept. 19, 2021. … Carolina QB Baker Mayfield has had six passes tipped at the line of scrimmage this season. He now has had 50 tipped passes at the line since coming into the league in 2018, the most of any NFL quarterback, according to ESPN Stats and Info. … Panthers DE Brian Burns has 27 1/2 sacks through his first 50 games. The only other Carolina player with more was Julius Peppers (31). … Carolina starts five former first-round draft picks on defense. … Since the start of the 2021 season, the Panthers defense has the second-most games (13) of not allowing an opponents to pass for at least 200 yards, behind only the Buffalo Bills (14).

FANTASY TIP: QB Jameis Winston has struggled against Carolina throughout his career with New Orleans and Tampa Bay. In 10 games vs. the Panthers, Winston has thrown nine touchdown passes and 16 interceptions while being sacked 36 times.

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AP Sports Writer Brett Martel contributed to this report.

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More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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