9:19 PM EST, December 20, 2013
The Sports Xchange
NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - INSIDE SLANT
One of the best road teams in the NFL since 2006, the New Orleans Saints are struggling as they prepare to play their second game in a row -- and third in four weeks -- away from the raucous Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday.
All told, the Saints have dropped four of the past five on the road -- including a head-scratching 27-16 decision to the St. Louis Rams last Sunday, which came two weeks after a 34-7 blowout loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 2.
So going to Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday to face the Carolina Panthers (10-4) can't be a comforting thing for the Saints (10-4) even though they crushed the Panthers, 31-13, on Dec. 8 in the Superdome.
The teams are tied for the NFC South lead and the winner of Sunday's game will have the inside track to the division title as well as the No. 2 seed in the conference and a first-round bye for the upcoming playoffs.
Saints coach Sean Payton was running hot after the loss to the Rams, who were 5-8 going into the game, which prevented his team from clinching a playoff berth.
After not taking full advantage of the opportunity in front of them, things could potentially get sticky for the Saints, who are 7-0 at home but only 3-4 on the road, if they fall to the Panthers.
The Saints had the best road mark in the NFL since 2009 after winning their first two away from home this year and were 23-11 at that point. But they've fallen to 24-15 going into Sunday's road finale, which still tops the league with the New England Patriots a game back at 23-16.
"I don't know. ... I'd like to be able to pinpoint one specific thing and say we're going to change this one element and all of a sudden play better," said Payton of his team's road woes. "Historically, during our years here we have been a very good road team.
"We're currently 3-4 on the road this season. That's something that is below average. It is what it is. The challenges Carolina presents, they're a real good football team."
Not that he ever needs reminding, no one has to tell quarterback Drew Brees the importance of this week's game for the Saints after they had to play in the wild-card round the last two times they were in the playoffs.
"We know what we're playing for: We're playing for the divisional championship and the two seed, so it doesn't get any bigger or better than that," he said. "Obviously, we understand our deficiencies on the road here the last couple of trips. It is great motivation for us to really hammer down this week, and find ways to improve and get better.
"Some of it is execution. ... Some of it is maybe over-complication," he added. "At times, we may have tried to get a little too complicated. I think we can simplify. By doing that, I think you allow guys to play faster and play with more confidence."
Despite the loss to the Rams, inside linebacker Curtis Lofton said the Saints still have everything in front of them if they can get back to their winning ways on the road.
"I would say that the sky has not fallen," Lofton said in reminding reporters that they're still 10-4. "We know we have a good team. We just have to go out and execute."
SERIES HISTORY: 38th regular-season meeting. Panthers lead series, 19-18, after the Saints won their first meeting on Dec. 8 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Panthers have held the upper hand since the teams joined the new NFC South when the NFL was realigned in 2002, with Carolina having a 13-10 advantage since then.
NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - NOTES, QUOTES
--After watching Charles Brown struggle at left tackle in Sunday's 27-16 loss to the St. Louis Rams, Saints coach Sean Payton made the unusual move of benching a starter before a crucial game against the Carolina Panthers.
Brown, a fourth-year pro who was benched in the third quarter after committing two costly penalties and giving up two sacks, was demoted Wednesday in favor of third-round draft pick Terron Armstead.
Armstead will make his NFL debut at tackle on Sunday after being inactive for 10 of the team's 14 games. The 6-foot-5, 304-pounder will take over for Brown, who was dominated by Rams defensive end Robert Quinn and gave up a sack that resulted in a lost fumble by Drew Brees.
"(It was) a decision based on just looking at a lot of snaps, and looking at consistency and the things we're looking for," Payton said of the move. "There were a handful of things that happened in that game that really prohibited us from having some type of success.
"I think Terron has improved during the course of the season -- be it taking scout-team reps, or some work with the offense," Payton said during his daily news conference. "It's time to see what he can do."
"I really don't look at it as too much pressure," said Armstead, who'll line up against Panthers right defensive end Greg Hardy. "It's what I came here to do -- play. It hasn't happened until now, so I just have to take advantage of my opportunity."
--Payton cut the cord on struggling kicker Garrett Hartley on Tuesday, just two days after he had a 36-yard field-goal attempt blocked and missed a 26-yarder in the loss to the Rams.
Hartley was only 22 of 30 in field-goal attempts this season, which is 73.3 percent, after connecting on just 2 of 6 kicks during a midseason slump. He came into the 2013 season with just 11 misses in his first four seasons, good for a 84.5 percent success rate.
To take Hartley's place for Sunday's showdown with the Panthers, whom they are tied with at the top of the NFC South standings, the Saints signed veteran kicker Shayne Graham.
The 36-year-old Graham, who spent seven of his 12 seasons in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals, has made 85.4 percent of his field-goal attempts -- going 245 of 287 for his career.
Graham was one of five kickers Payton brought in for tryouts on Nov. 12 after Hartley missed four field-goal attempts in a three-game stretch.
But five days later, Hartley kept his job when he booted three field goals in the fourth quarter of a 23-20 win against the San Francisco 49ers.
On Wednesday, Payton said it was a hard decision to release Hartley, a key component of the Saints team that won Super Bowl XLIV in 2009.
Hartley struggled at midseason when he misfired on four of six attempts, then had a 36-yard field goal blocked by the Rams and shanked a 26-yarder that sealed his fate. He was 22-of-30 this season.
"He responded very well earlier in the year when he had a handful of misses," Payton said. "But then it was more difficult to see (him miss) the shorter-range field goal. You spent a lot of time giving it thought, and ultimately you go with your gut."
It was more than difficult, Payton said, to cut a player that kicked a game-winning field goal in overtime of the NFC Championship Game in 2009 and went on to produce three field goals of 40 yards or longer in the Super Bowl.
"When you do something and win a championship like that, it is a little bit stronger bond between everyone that was on that team on that bus ride home and a part of it. So absolutely (it's tough)," he said.
--Brees and linebacker Curtis Lofton said they expected changes would be coming after the Saints failed miserably against a 5-8 Rams team.
"Sean flat-out said, 'There's probably going to be some changes made around here, and some of you won't like it,'" Brees said.
"I would definitely say you're on notice," said Lofton. "The thing about this league is you're being evaluated every time you step out on the football field, whether it's in practice or whether it's in a game.
"When you make a move like that, it's telling everyone: 'You're accountable. And you're not just accountable to the players, but you're accountable to this organization and to these fans.' When you don't go out and execute and play the way you should play, then there are consequences."
--After throwing two interceptions on their first two possessions against the Rams, Brees will try to bounce back this week the way he did earlier this season.
Brees was intercepted twice in a loss to the New York Jets in early November, but then threw just one in his next five outings before the Rams' T.J. McDonald and Trumaine Johnson got him.
It was only the second time in his 13-year NFL career that Brees has thrown two picks in the first quarter of a game.
When he was a member of the San Diego Chargers in 2003, he suffered two interceptions on the first two possessions and tossed another one later in a 26-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins.
--The Saints' defense did not have a sack or takeaway in a game for the first time this season against the Rams.
Rob Ryan's defense, which was tied for second in the league with 43 sacks going into the game, did not get to Kellen Clemens even though he had been sacked 18 times in six-plus games since replacing an injured Sam Bradford.
The Saints had no takeaways for the fifth time in the past seven games. They have just two in that seven-game span after getting 15 in the first seven games.
BY THE NUMBERS: Minus-5 -- The Saints turnover differential in their seven road games this season. They're plus-5 in seven home games in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We played them just a week ago, and both teams have a lot at stake. I think it's important that we have a good plan going in and are able to handle the challenges of noise, weather, whatever it is ... we're going to be tested with it." -- Saints coach Sean Payton, on playing the Carolina Panthers for the NFC South lead on Sunday.
NFC PLAYOFFS AT A GLANCE:
CLINCHED: Seattle - playoff spot
Seattle clinches NFC West division and home-field advantage throughout NFC playoffs with:
1) SEA win or tie OR
2) SF loss or tie
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
New Orleans clinches NFC South division and a first-round bye with:
1) NO win
New Orleans clinches a playoff spot with:
1) ARI loss OR
2) NO tie + SF loss or tie OR
3) NO tie + ARI tie OR
4) SF loss + ARI tie
Carolina clinches a playoff spot with:
1) CAR win OR
2) CAR tie + ARI loss OR
3) CAR tie + SF loss OR
4) ARI loss + SF loss
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
San Francisco clinches a playoff spot with:
1) SF win OR
2) ARI loss OR
3) SF tie + ARI tie
Philadelphia clinches NFC East division with:
1) PHI win + DAL loss or tie OR
2) PHI tie + DAL loss
Chicago clinches NFC North division with:
1) CHI win + DET loss or tie + GB loss
NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--LT Terron Armstead, a third-round draft pick this spring, will make his first NFL start on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.
--T Charles Brown, who was benched in last week's loss to the St. Louis Rams, won't be in the starting lineup Sunday for the first time this season.
--K Garrett Hartley, who has been with the Saints since 2008, was released Tuesday after making just 22 of 30 field-goal attempts this season.
--K Shayne Graham was signed on Wednesday, one day after the Saints released the struggling Hartley.
--CB Chris Carr, who had played sparingly on defense in recent weeks, was released for the second time this season on Tuesday.
--S Eric Frampton, a seven-year veteran, was signed on Tuesday for depth on special teams.
--S Rafael Bush, who's missed the last two games with an ankle injury, did not practice Wednesday and his status for Sunday is unknown.
--DE Keyunta Dawson, who has been out for three games because of a calf injury, was limited in practice Wednesday, but his return is not known.
--SS Roman Harper was limited in Wednesday's practice by a hip injury, but his status is not known for Sunday's game.
--TE Josh Hill was limited Wednesday with a left hamstring injury and it's not known if he'll be ready to play Sunday.
OFFICIAL FRIDAY INJURY REPORT:
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
--DOUBTFUL: S Rafael Bush (ankle)
--QUESTIONABLE: LB Keyunta Dawson (calf), TE Josh Hill (hamstring)
--PROBABLE: RB Travaris Cadet (not injury related)
--OUT: RB Jonathan Stewart (knee)
--PROBABLE: T Jordan Gross (not injury related), TE Greg Olsen (foot), WR Steve Smith (finger), G Travelle Wharton (not injury related), TE Brandon Williams (hip)
The Saints didn't have a good day on either side of the ball against the Rams, and it showed. The good thing is they don't have to go deep into the archives to face the Panthers after giving them a 31-13 spanking on Dec. 8. Drew Brees had a hot hand early and exploited the Panthers' pass defense most of the night. He finished with four touchdown passes, which could be the ticket again Sunday if they can keep him upright against a stout Panthers' pass rush because they're extremely tough to run on.
Defensively, they have to try and contain Cam Newton as best they can after doing a pretty good job on him in their earlier meeting. Newton threw for just 160 yards and rushed for 48 that night, which made running back DeAngelo Williams and wide receiver Steve Smith ineffective as well when they frustrated Newton.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Saints LT Terron Armstead vs. Panthers RDE Greg Hardy -- Armstead, a rookie, will have a huge challenge when he lines up for the first offensive play of his young NFL career. A third-round draft pick, Armstead will draw the assignment of blocking Hardy, who has eight sacks this season and 26 for his four-year career. Keeping Hardy away from Drew Brees and making sure he stays clean in a crucial game is Armstead's primary mission in replacing Charles Brown.
--Saints QB Drew Brees vs. Panthers secondary -- Brees had his way with the Panthers in Week 14, throwing four touchdowns with no interceptions while completing 30 of 42 passes for 313 yards. In connecting on 71.0 percent of his passes, Brees sliced up the Panthers secondary - which was ranked sixth at the time. Unless the Saints can get their running game going, they're going to need Brees to come up big as he has done so many times.
--Saints front seven vs. Panthers QB Cam Newton -- After corralling Newton for the most part in their first meeting and holding him to 208 total yards from scrimmage - including just 48 on the ground - defensive coordinator Rob Ryan would take that again in a heartbeat. The Saints simply can't let the dangerous Newton kill them with the read-option, which, with the exception of one 19-yard run, they took away from him on Dec. 8.
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