Carolina Panthers: Grades Against New Orleans Saints

Ted Ginn Jr.

Nov 17, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn (19) with the ball as New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Craig Robertson (52) and cornerback B.W. Webb (28) defend in the first quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Grading the Carolina Panthers after a close game against the New Orleans Saints.

The Carolina Panthers won their first NFC South game on Thursday as they defeated the New Orleans Saints, 23-20. This pushed the Panthers to a 4-6 record, but still well outside of the picture for any chance to make it to the postseason.

With this game, there are points of success and failure that the front office needs to continue to look at if this organization is going to salvage any point of the 2016 season. The Panthers have struggled for much of the year, but have recently shown glimpses of hope that they can turn it around before the year is over.

The worst part about this win is that the Panthers couldn’t make it out without suffering key injuries on both sides of the ball. Kelvin Benjamin and Luke Kuechly both got hurt on Thursday night. These are two players that the Panthers can’t afford to lose if they have any hope of saving their season.

We’ll look at how well the Carolina Panthers performed in key aspects of the game: Quarterback play, running backs, wide receivers, defensive unit, special teams and overall play. Each area receives a grade ranging from an A to an F, along with an explanation for what earned that score. Onto the grades for Week 11 against the Saints.

Oct 16, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) runs for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints during the fourth quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Panthers 41-38. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 16, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) runs for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints during the fourth quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Panthers 41-38. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterbacks Grade: C+

After the 2015 season where Cam Newton became the NFL MVP, many wondered if that was a flash in the pan or if Newton finally reached his point of promise. This season he’s seemed like much more of a game-manager than a game-changing franchise quarterback. This outing against the Saints falls into the latter category, rather than that of the former.

Newton ended the day with 14 completions on 33 attempts for 192 yards and one touchdown. His QBR was 49.2 and QB Rating was 71.8. Newton was sacked twice for a total loss of 19 yards. What was clear in this game is that Newton’s biggest success came in the fact that he didn’t create any additional mistakes that hampered the Panthers further.

Newton has shown that he has the abilities to be a big time playmaker anytime the ball is in his hands. Yet, that skill set hasn’t shown through much this season. If Carolina is going to make a final push to the postseason, Newton must find a way to return to the play style that helped the team go 15-1 last season. This season isn’t lost yet, but Newton has to improve his play from games such as this win over the Saints.

Nov 6, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) hands off to running back Jonathan Stewart (28) in the first half of the game against the Los Angeles Rams at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 6, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) hands off to running back Jonathan Stewart (28) in the first half of the game against the Los Angeles Rams at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Running Backs Grade: D-

Carolina’s running game has long been the back bone of this offense. Teams knew that the Panthers were built to run the ball time and time again, but were unable to get that going against New Orleans.

The team ended the day with just 50 yards on the ground from 27 attempts, though they notched one touchdown. Jonathan Stewart led the way with 31 yards on 18 attempts and the lone score. Ted Ginn Jr. contributed from the wide receiver position with 13 yards on one rushing play. Newton also added to the final total with seven yards on five attempts.

The Saints made some key adjustments against the Panthers from their first game this season, cutting down their total by more than half. Early in the game the Panthers had success running the ball, but that completely changed during the second half of play. This runs consistent with the offensive stagnation that the Panthers experienced this season.

The team got out to an early lead, but completely slowed down yet again for quarters two and three. The running attack is the way that Carolina has controlled both the offense and defensive side of the ball. Without the ability to run the ball, Carolina is limited and this game stands as an example of such.

Kelvin Benjamin

Nov 17, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (13) on the field before the game at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Wide Receivers Grade: C+

Carolina continued to spread the ball around and use a diverse set of receivers. Six players caught passes and eight were targeted in total. The group finished the game with 192 yards and an average of 13.7 yards per completion.

Kelvin Benjamin led the way with 56 yards on three catches. Ted Ginn Jr had the only touchdown along with 36 yards on three catches of his own. Greg Olsen had the most catches with four for 33 yards. Devin Funchess had two catches for 32 yards. Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart contributed with one catch each out of the backfield. Ed Dickson and Corey Brown were both targeted, but they did not have any successful catches in this game.

The Panthers passing attack was expected to be one of the major talking points on the season. With Benjamin returning from injury, the steady growth of Funchess and Ginn and the experience of Olsen, this group was one of the best receiving groups on paper. Unfortunately for the Panthers and fans alike, they haven’t been able to breakthrough to that level. There are a lot of reasons why that occurred, but this game is yet another example as to why Carolina hasn’t played well offensively all season.

Nov 17, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) rides the cart after an injury in the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Saints at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers defeated the Saints 23-20. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 17, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) rides the cart after an injury in the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Saints at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers defeated the Saints 23-20. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Unit Grade: D

The Carolina Panthers continue to struggle with late game collapses. They were up 23-3 heading into the fourth quarter. The Panthers would then give up 17 unanswered points to nearly blow another game this season. Last season the Panthers nearly gave away multiple games with late-game performances such as this. What was different then is that the team found a way to pull out the win as they did on Thursday against the Saints. That hasn’t been the case all year.

When Kuechly went down with another concussion, it seemed like the game was lost. The Panthers were up by 10 points and couldn’t stop the Saints’ advances. They were able to pull things out to find a way to win.

Carolina forced two fumbles, one by Drew Brees and the other by Coby Fleener, recovering one. Kurt Coleman also picked off Brees and earned 12 yards on the return. Mario Addison had two sacks, while Kony Ealy had one of his own.

The Saints earned 321 yards through the air, continuing the story that Carolina can’t stop strong passing games with their weakened secondary. While their rookies have performed modestly, this team will need to make some adjustments during the offseason if they are going to correct this glaring hole.

Oct 16, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano (9) reacts after missing an extra point during the fourth quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Panthers 41-38. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 16, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano (9) reacts after missing an extra point during the fourth quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Panthers 41-38. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams Grade: C

Graham Gano was perfect on the evening, successfully completing three field goal attempts and two extra points. His long on the evening was 49 yards. Gano has struggled multiple times this year, so it was good to see him return to this form in such a vital game against a division rival.

Michael Palardy filled in for Andy Lee, who was having a strong season. Palardy had six punts for 280 yards with an average of 46.7 yards per kick. He had a long of 56, with one touchback and one punt inside the 20 each.

From a return standpoint the Panthers played well. Joe Webb had two kickoff returns for 49 total yards, while Fozzy Whittaker added to the total with 7. Ginn Jr., handled the punt return needs with 10 yards on two attempts.

The Panthers special teams units has under-performed a few times throughout the season, costing the team in late game situations. While the Panthers didn’t have to come from behind in this game, they did enough to pull out the victory in this close game. The special teams unit did their job in not costing the Panthers the game as they have in the past.

Oct 30, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera looks at a replay during the second quarter against the Arizona Cardinals at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 30, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera looks at a replay during the second quarter against the Arizona Cardinals at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Overall Performance Grade: C

Carolina barely made it out of this game with the win. At 4-6, the team is almost losing hope to return to the postseason again, snapping their streak of NFC South victories. Still, they have to play with the intention of winning every game in order to do all they can to sneak into the playoffs.

This win over the New Orleans Saints wasn’t impressive in any form. In fact, it was the exact opposite. The Panthers need to find a way to keep up their momentum in games. Too often the team comes out strong, just to fade in late game moments. That fact has cost this team many times this season and almost did on Thursday.

The biggest issue is to find out exactly why these issues are coming up. Carolina isn’t rife with injures like they were last season, but they are not playing well in any shape or form. Coach Ron Rivera isn’t in the dog house at this point, but he seems to not have any answers in what will turn this team around and perhaps get them in position for a late-season run. This was a valuable win, but there are more questions lingering as the Carolina Panthers head into next week’s game against the Oakland Raiders.

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