The list reads like a Who’s Who of elite rushers.
Houston’s J.J. Watt. The Rams’ Aaron Donald. Seattle’s Jadeveon Clowney. Dallas’ DeMarcus Lawrence. Chicago’s Khalil Mack.
The New Orleans Saints’ offensive line has had to stare down every one of them en route to helping the team achieve its 8-2 record this season, with significantly more successes than failures.
But individually, neither presented what will be offered collectively by Carolina (5-5), Sunday’s opponent in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Panthers lead the NFL in sacks, with 39 entering Sunday’s game. And eight players have totaled at least three, which will present a different kind of challenge for New Orleans, which only has allowed 19 sacks this season, with six of them coming in one game (against Atlanta).
“You can’t key in on one guy,” Saints center Erik McCoy said. “We’ve played the Khalil Macks, the J.J. Watts, so you kind of keyed in on that player. But with teams like this, you have to really win one-on-one individual matchups to win the game.”
“Their depth and the amount of guys that are getting their sacks has been impressive,” left tackle Terron Armstead said. “They’re leading the league in sacks so they’ve definitely been doing a great and productive job getting after the quarterback. We’re preparing to eliminate that the best we can.”
New Orleans successfully did that against Tampa Bay last week, in a 34-17 road victory. Drew Brees wasn’t sacked – the Buccaneers registered just three quarterback hits, and one of them was against Taysom Hill – and completed 80 percent of his passes (28 of 35).
That performance came a week after, arguably, the worst showing of protection this season: six sacks allowed against Atlanta (the most Brees had been sacked in a game since 2013, when the Panthers got to him six times in a December game).
Panthers Coach Ron Rivera said Carolina, obviously, would take a look at what the Falcons did successfully. The Saints already have a good idea of what has made the Panthers’ rush successful.
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Said McCoy: “They have a lot of good, individual players, guys that can win their one-on-one matchups, they run their twists really good. They’ve had a lot of chemistry going up front with it. That’s how a lot of them get to the quarterback.”
Few would know that better than McCoy’s quarterback, who spends countless hours dissecting film.
“It is impressive, man,” Brees said. “They get after you. They have got a lot of good pass rushers. This has always been a very aggressive defense. A pressure style defense.
“They have, obviously, one of the smartest, best players in the game in (linebacker) Luke Kuechly and you see how active he is in his communication and leadership on that side of the ball.
“They're doing a good job of getting pressure on opposing teams and taking the ball away. Again, for us it becomes about our execution, our attention to detail in regards to the protection and then also when we do have opportunities to make plays, we've got to make them.”