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Barry Hirstius

5 Biggest Saints “Winners and Losers” in 34-13 Win vs. the Panthers

Just when we thought the New Orleans Saints were headed for a potentially disastrous 2017 season, something like today happens --- a day when the team that Saints fans thought they were going to originally see at the beginning of the season 2 weeks ago, finally showed up.

And boy, did they EVER show up.

After getting embarrassed in their first 2 games to start the season in losses at Minnesota in Week #1 and to the defending World Champion New England Patriots last week at home, the Saints went into today's game against the previously undefeated division rival Carolina Panthers expecting the worse.

But instead, the Saints played their best game in nearly an entire year.

Led by an opportunistic defense that forced 3 turnovers and sacked Panthers QB Cam Newton 4 times, the Saints rolled to a very impressive 34-13 victory; despite missing three of their top four cornerbacks, their #2 wide receiver and both starting offensive tackles.

The Saints improved to (1-2) on the season, and can now even their record at (2-2) next week with a win over the Miami Dolphins (1-1) in the game that will be played in London, England.

Now if you follow this weekly article after each Saints game during the season, then you know that I haven't been listing "winners" in the first 2 weeks, because of just how poorly the Saints had played in those first 2 games.

So it goes without saying, that given how well that the Saints played today; that I won't be naming any losers from this game --- but only the 5 biggest "winners".

With that in mind, here are my 5 biggest "winners" from today's great victory in Charlotte, North Carolina........

 

THE BIGGEST WINNERS

 

5. LARRY WARFORD, OFFENSIVE RIGHT GUARD

Photo courtesy of WWL TV New Orleans

Warford was one of the more "under the radar" signings in Free Agency for the Saints in the off-season; and he had been one of the team's few bright spots in those first 2 demoralizing losses to begin the season.

But today, Warford was nothing short of DOMINANT at his right guard position while playing next to rookie right tackle Ryan Ramczyk -- who started in the place of injured veteran Zach Strief.

Warford led the way for the Saints running game with a crushing block on Panthers DT Star Lotulelei that allowed RB Mark Ingram to pick up a key first down in the 1st quarter; and then later threw another block while running downfield on a screen to Ingram that gained another 25 yards. Then late in the 2nd half, he and Ramczyk helped rookie Alvin Kamara score his first TD as a pro on a 25-yard score half way through in the 4th quarter.

In all, the Saints running game had their best game of the young season so far with 149 yards on 27 attempts; and not surprisingly a lot of those yards came on runs right up the gut or to the right side of the O-Line --- and right where Warford was "taking care of business".

 

4. DREW BREES, QUARTERBACK

(AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

It won't come as a great shock to Saints fans to see Brees make this list, and today's performance was the typical one that fans have come to expect from him over the years.

But given how the Saints have struggled as a team overall in the first 2 weeks, the concern was that perhaps Brees could have some trouble against the top-ranked Panthers defense, but that wasn't the case at all.

Brees had a masterful performance, completing 22 out of 29 passes for 220 yards and 3 TD's, and with the exception of a few overthrown passes and one poorly thrown ball that should have been a "Pick 6" interception for Carolina All-Pro LB Luke Kuechley, the 38-year old was as sharp as he's ever been.

That's great news for the Saints, who will get #2 WR Willie Snead, one of Brees' favorite targets, back from suspension against the Dolphins next Sunday in London.

 

3. MARK INGRAM, RUNNING BACK

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

After a relatively quiet first 2 weeks in which he was forced to share carries with fellow veteran RB Adrian Peterson and rookie RB Alvin Kamara, Ingram was featured more as the "lead" RB in today's contest -- and made the most of his opportunities.

Ingram ran hard and with a sense of determination and purpose that we saw from him at times last season as well; and as a result the Panthers defense wasn't able to truly slow him down.

Ingram led the Saints rushing attack with 56 yards on 14 carries, and added another 30 yards receiving on 2 catches out of the backfield. It wasn't a completely dominant performance like some of the ones we've seen from him in the past, but Ingram's toughness was clearly evident in this game today, and he was a key contributor in the team's first victory in 2017.

 

2. MICHAEL THOMAS, WIDE RECEIVER

(AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

If the Saints have any one true "superstar" on their roster, clearly it's 2nd year WR Michael Thomas; who when he is able to break free from double coverage; has the capability to take over a game --- something Thomas did right from the outset of the 1st quarter.

Thomas gave Panthers CB Captain Munnerlyn fits, and on the first Saints offensive drive alone caught every single one of Brees’ completions for a total of 50 yards, including a 5-yard TD reception to cap off a 13-play, 74-yard opening touchdown drive.

On the day, Thomas finished with 7 receptions for 87 yards and that TD; but perhaps more importantly he helped Brees and the entire Saints offense to establish a "rhythm", which in turn helped provide some much-needed momentum to the other side of the ball to the team's struggling defense as well.

 

1. THE ENTIRE SAINTS DEFENSE

Photo courtesy of Michael DeMocker, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Wow. What a difference a week makes.

Maybe they got tired of being the butt of jokes for the past week, or perhaps they just decided to put the events of the past 2 weeks behind them and remained focused on the game today; but whatever the Saints did during this past week of practice to get ready for the Panthers, it clearly worked.

Now grant it, the Panthers offense was missing its starting All-Pro tight end Greg Olsen, and also lost WR Kelvin Benjamin and guard Trai Turner early on during the contest. But the Saints were able to completely "shut down" Panthers QB and former League MVP Cam Newton, who had one of the worst performances of his entire NFL career with a 17 of 28 performance for 167 yards with three interceptions and a 43.8 passer rating.

Saints CB P.J. Williams and rookie safety Marcus Williams got their first career interceptions each, while safety Kenny Vaccaro -- who was on our "biggest losers" list for the past 2 weeks -- had a bounce-back performance with a tipped pass that led to Marcus Williams' pick and grabbed a critical interception of his own that "iced" the victory for New Orleans.

The Saints defensive line also registered 4 sacks, and despite yielding some big chunks of yardage to Panthers RB's Jonathan Stewart in the running game and rookie sensation Christian McCaffrey in the short passing game out of the backfield (McCaffrey had 9 receptions for 101 yards), essentially stymied the entire Panthers offense for a majority of the afternoon.

All in all, it was a magnificent performance by the Saints defense; and if they can play that well on a much more consistent basis throughout the remainder of the year?

Then perhaps it can give Saints fans some more optimism that this current 2017 season, which is now only just 3 weeks old; might not turn out nearly as bad as it had been looking like it would at this very same time last week --- with a very "winnable" game on their schedule up next week in London against the Dolphins.......

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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