An undrafted safety might be the key to limiting Drew Brees.
This is the first time the full-on, top ranked Carolina defense gets to go after a Sean Payton offense. Obviously, the 2011 team got stomped; the 2012 team that did a good job against Brees, didn't have Payton at the helm. That makes this battle the key of the game, and therefore the path toward the division crown.
Payton's Coryell-influenced attack does plenty of old-school Coryell staples - 3 verticals, 4 verticals, plenty of post and corner work to keep corners on their heels and a powerful TE up the middle. Payton also loves to show the same play out of plenty of formations, and shifts into different looks out of base personnel. Having Jimmy Graham, and the incredibly versatile Darren Sproles, doesn't hurt. They can do anything out of any formation, so it's not hard to move things around. The key concept to those verticals include Brees' look-off, to push the safety away from his intended target.
It's interesting that Brees, who really doesn't seem less cerebral or capable of doing so, isn't a guy who has much no huddle capability. He does plenty of line checking, he runs a wide open offense with versatile personnel, and yet he's been doing it less while makeshift offenses are doing it more (Buffalo, Philly, and Atlanta). No concerns there - if Sean Payton wants the clock to run a bit, it's fine by me. Carolina's likely going to run when it can, and stop the run as much as it'll be able to. Since Carolina leads time of posession through ground game and taking what the defense gives, they're probably going to do their best to limit the chances Brees gets to make big plays by playing keep away.
That's where the strategy starts. Past that, I expect a lot more two deep safety than Carolina normally runs. An exception would be dropping Quentin Mikell to ten yards, just to let him have more reach on TE Jimmy Graham. Graham is obviously the critical target - he's got 12 TDs on the year, and almost 1000 yards as he takes aim at various all-time TE records and certainly the single season ones.
Dropping Mikell to ten yards but setting him up in deep zone might be something - especially if the Panthers somehow get a good chuck on Graham at the line. It disguises the zone look a bit, and Carolina tends to play one safety up at times. It also allows them to go cover 1 if they want - and in a way, that might have some value. Traditional man underneath against Drew Brees is less ideal, but if you're rushing four and holding the one safety in zone, you have six cover guys to spread amongst four to five receivers - so you can call that bracket on Graham and read the back. That's going to be Brees' progression on many plays anyway, and the NO receivers aren't killing it the way that Graham is, or that RB Darren Sproles could.
Marques Colston is now 30, year 8; he's having his worst yards/catch season since '10; he's on place to have less than 5 TD for the first season ever, and his second sub-1000 yard season ever. Colston has been a secondary target for a while now, but this year he's struggling to keep his normal pace. He's still a solid posession guy and it's not like the size (6'4, 225) went anywhere, so he can still make the post, slant, corner moves and can be the crossing guy, too. But he's maybe not the guy who can show open deep. It's not that Drayton Florence is the perfect guy to leave on an island, but he might be the right guy to play press and stay physical with Florence.
Kenny Stills is the other starter - the speedy but small (6', 195) rookie from Oklahoma becoming the guy to get the bigger play (4 TD, 20 ypc). But Stills hasn't caught more than 3 balls but once, in a game where his average dipped to 9.8. He's only caught 4 balls total the last three weeks, for 36 yards. The Jets, 9ers, and Seahawks each held him closer to 11 ypc with only the Jets giving up more than one score. Stills has to be respected deep, but outside of that, he doesn't appear to be dangerous.
So how is this offense the 3rd ranked pass offense, then? Outside of Graham, they've been working both backs hard. Mark Ingram gets some of Sproles' carries now, but Pierre Thomas has gotten a bigger share. 121 rushes and he's second in receptions with 60 (Sproles has 55). They're pushing both backs with a heavy role in the run game, and that makes them obvious guys to watch in patterns. It's, to a point, Carolina's "weak" spot - footballoutsiders has them no worse than 11th in the league at defending a given WR or TE (#1 WR; 2 and 3-4 they're excellent, and 8th against the TE), but against backs, they're 22nd. Can't cover everything at all times, but it's worth watching to see if they can get on the backs early.
It does have a level of purposeful situationality to it. They're going to sub liberally for situation, and you can tell with Ingram (who has only three catches, and who mostly plays with 2nd TE Ben Watson, who has 10) that they're going to do different things than with Sproles and 3rd WR Lance Moore (who's become an underneath guy in his age) or Robert Meacham (who subs in to pull duty with the go, post, and back shoulder fade). You can sub in with it too - if you want to really focus on Graham, you'll probably see backup S Robert Lester in for a big nickel look, and the team did that a fair bit against Rob Gronkowski. You can sub in a sixth DB and not get caught being too light.
It also suggests some level of blitz if you want it. I don't know that too much blitzing is a great idea against Brees, but it was effective at the end of 2011. It's not happening this year as much; still, though Brees gets the ball out fast, and works the backs, he does still take a lot of deeper shots, a lot more than Brady/Manning over time. So you're not breaking your neck to get to him in under 2 seconds, hoping to get a free man through. Brees' timing isn't going to be the same every play.
I don't know that a lot of blitzing is necessary - and if the rush starts really landing, stop blitzing. The screen game gets heavier, and the playcalls get closer in; that's the typical Payton adjustment. First you have to get the rush there, though, and I think Carolina has a good shot at it.
Charles Johnson gets back this week, and hopefully he's rested. He faces Zach Strief, who likewise is a little banged up. He's given up only three sacks on the season but struggled last week. Greg Hardy gets the easy part - not only does he get to go back to exclusively playing the right side, but he gets Charles Brown. Brown's second in the league in penalties, and per profootballfocus.com, has given up 9th most pressure of any OT (so, out of 64+).
Inside, it gets more even. Bruce Grubbs and Jahri Evans are a top notch guard combo; Brian De La Puente is smart, and just athletic enough to keep a job. Star Lotulelei is stout enough to take on anyone, but Dwan Edwards still ailing, and never being a great run player, might struggle a bit. It might be worth having more snaps for Kawann Short this week, and I'm sure with healthy end depth for once, you'll see some inside rushes for Hardy or Johnson.
It's obviously a good week to stop the run - Carolina is 2nd stopping it, New Orleans is 23rd trying to run it. Another good reason to expect less single-high safety, and potentially more reason to expect SLB Chase Blackburn to play only modest amounts. AJ Klein is better in coverage (in the hypothetical where neither is suckered into playaction), and faster, though I would honestly expect them to sneak Robert Lester in base about 10-15 snaps. If Carolina suddenly gives up 3.5 on the ground instead of 2.5, it's allright. Lester isn't a magic cure-all for Graham, but they do play him liberally against good TEs. Dropping him right into the base and lining him up inconspicuously where Blackburn was, might be a good way to stop the shorter stuff to Graham. It also gives a better matchup should Graham end up lining up in space.
Graham notwithstanding, this offense is still very good but it doesn't have that elite punch. They're 2nd in time of possession (2nd to Carolina) and remain efficient, and they're 7th in points. They're good. But, they've had struggles with borderline defenses like Atlanta's, and lost to 2 of the last 3 good defenses they faced (NYJ, SEA, and the exception being the last minute bailout call v/s SF). None of those defenses, statistically, are Carolina's. Sure, Seattle has excellent DBs and Carolina has mostly castoffs, but San Francisco and New York aren't working with much better, honestly.
Carolina, definitely not the offensive power that New Orleans is, has to play the field position game. If that's going to work, this defense has to stop the run, set up great 2nd, 3rd and long situations, and capitalize on them. That's where something nutty like using Lester as a 3rd safety for Graham could pay off.