Saints-Panthers PreviewBy MIKE LIPKA
2012-09-14 15:31:53 -
Looking to put an offseason of turmoil behind them, the New Orleans Saints instead invited more scrutiny by losing to a team led by a Heisman Trophy-winning, dual-threat rookie quarterback.
They never had that problem against Cam Newton last year.
The Saints hope to avoid becoming the only NFC South team without a victory Sunday when they visit Newton and the Carolina Panthers, who are trying to bounce back from a disheartening Week 1 performance of their own.
With coach Sean Payton suspended for the whole season and interim coach Joe Vitt banned for the first six games following the bounty scandal, New Orleans had all kinds of problems in its first contest under fill-in Aaron Kromer.
In a 40-32 home loss to Washington, the Saints committed 12 penalties for 107 yards, went 2 for 11 on third down and let Robert Griffin III throw for 320 yards in his NFL debut.
"I'm sure (Payton) was disappointed that we didn't play better than we did and he should have been," Kromer said. "We were all disappointed - players, coaches, everyone.
"We had one bad game. We're going to turn it around. It's a good wake-up call for us and we're ready to go."
Drew Brees threw for 339 yards and three touchdowns, but he had two interceptions while completing 24 of 52 passes - his worst percentage (46.2) since 2006.
The quarterback joined a chorus of Saints players insisting there's no reason to be concerned yet.
"We lost the first game of last year and finished 13-3," Brees said. "So there's no doubt that we can do it."
Of course, that opening defeat in 2011 was at Lambeau Field, whereas last weekend's loss was New Orleans' first at the Superdome since the final week of the 2010 season.
The Saints haven't lost to Carolina since the 2009 campaign. They put up 75 points in sweeping last season's series and did a good job limiting Newton, who was 31 of 56 for 382 yards over the two meetings.
Newton was among the handful of quarterbacks the NFL said were targeted in the bounty scandal, but he's not publicly showing any resentment toward the Saints.
"I'm not going to speak on something that was last year," Newton said. "That was last year, and I'm going to keep it at that."
New Orleans needed Brees' touchdown pass to Pierre Thomas in the final minute to win 30-27 in Charlotte on Oct. 9. Stopping the run was a major problem for the Saints that day, as DeAngelo Williams rolled up 115 yards on nine carries, but the Panthers couldn't move the ball on the ground last Sunday at Tampa Bay. Carolina totaled 10 yards - matching a franchise worst - on 13 carries and Williams finished with minus-1 yard on six attempts in a 16-10 loss.
Jonathan Stewart missed the game with an ankle injury and is listed as questionable this week along with wideout Steve Smith (knee), but coach Ron Rivera expects both of them to play.
Newton threw for 303 yards and a touchdown, but he was picked off twice in the second half and had a career-low four rushing yards.
"There's some cause for optimism as the mistakes on the offensive side are all correctable," Rivera said. "It wasn't a glaring thing as far as schematically. It was a player here or a player there, something that they did (wrong). We'll get better at it.
"There are some things we can do against (the Saints)," Rivera added.
Perhaps, but the offensive line play will probably need to be better. The Panthers started rookie Amini Silatolu at left guard and the second-round pick out of Midwestern State struggled, taking a pair of penalties and sharing the blame for two sacks.
The Saints also had problems running the ball, totaling 32 yards on 10 carries as they played from behind for the majority of the game.
"You're going to lose at some point in the season. That's just the reality of it," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "I'd rather lose early. You find out what your team is about. You find your identity, what your strengths and weaknesses are and you correct them."
New Orleans hasn't started 0-2 since 2007, when it dropped its first four games en route to its most recent losing season.
A heavy dose of Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston may be the formula to avoid an early hole. That duo combined for 28 catches, 440 yards and three touchdowns against Carolina last year.
Brees has completed 70.2 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions during the Saints' four-game winning streak in the series, averaging 319.0 passing yards per game.
Defensive end Will Smith started the opener for New Orleans after being reinstated from his bounty suspension, but the team remains without linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was placed on the physically unable to perform list this week as he continues to recover from left knee surgery.
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