CHARLOTTE - The Panthers entered Week 7 ranked 29th in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert on 50.7 percent of their attempts.
Sunday's loss to the Saints will only make those numbers worse.
Carolina's defense was historically poor on third down, allowing New Orleans to finish 12-of-14. In 26 seasons, the 85.7 conversion percentage was the highest ever allowed by the Panthers. In fact, it ties for the second-worst performance by an NFL defense since 1990. Only the 2008 Lions had a worse game, allowing 91.7 percent of third-down conversions, coincidentally, in a loss to the Saints.
As the numbers suggest, this was a problem from start to finish on Sunday. New Orleans had a handful of short conversions, netting a pair of third-and-1's plus a third-and-2 on its opening drive. Overall, five of the 14 attempts were from 1-yard out.
But the Saints were just fine on third-and-long as well, finishing 3-of-5 on third-and-8 or longer. The two times the Saints didn't convert, they ended up scoring points with a pair of field goals.
The Saints had such good fortune on third down that they didn't even send out their punter.
"I think when you play Drew Brees, you have to know he is going to be efficient," head coach Matt Rhule said. "We didn't make the plays or call the plays - just a team effort on our end - to get them off the field."
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The Saints entered the game ranked fourth on third down, with Brees leading the league with a 75.6 third-down completion percentage. But he was sterling in this game, finishing 9-of-9 for 110 yards passing on third down. Plus, he had two third-down running plays: a 1-yard touchdown in the second quarter and a 2-yard sneak that sealed the game with 65 seconds left.
"I feel like they were just finding out open spots in the zones, and Drew did a great job of hitting them on time," said cornerback Eli Apple, a former Saint. "You have to tip your hat off to him. He is very smart and knows how to get his guys open and find guys who are open too."
As he often is, running back Alvin Kamara was one of New Orleans' primary third-down weapons. He turned four of his five third-down touches into first downs, including tiptoeing the sideline for a 14-yard gain on third-and-14 midway through the third quarter. Overall, Kamara had 148 yards from scrimmage, averaging 6.7 yards per touch.
"He is one of those backs that slows down right before contact, and it's just hard to get him down," linebacker Shaq Thompson said. "But we will see him again at the end of the year. It's on us, and we just have to wrap up."
The defense's inability to stop the Saints had consequences for the Panthers' offense, which was efficient in averaging 6.6 yards per play. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater finished 23-of-28 for 254 yards with two touchdowns. Carolina even ended the game 6-of-9 on third down, keeping things close with explosive plays - like DJ Moore's 74-yard touchdown reception.
But the Panthers had just three drives in each half because the defense couldn't get off the field. New Orleans led in time of possession 34:41 to 25:19 and ran 67 plays compared to the Panthers' 43, their second-fewest in a single game. Carolina also had a lot of trouble finding running room, totaling only 37 yards on the ground on 14 attempts - a 2.6-yard average.
"When you look at the game, we didn't really have many possessions, so we just tried to maximize every drive that we got," Bridgewater said. "We wanted to make sure that we were finishing in the end zone, so it was one of those games where the game might go a little different from what the game plan was."
Allowing third-down conversions is not a new problem for this year's Panthers' defense, which now has two of the worst nine performances in the category in franchise history. It's worth noting that in Week 3 against the Chargers, when Carolina surrendered 10-of-15 third downs (66.7 percent), it not only tied for No. 7 but also ended up as a win.
To be fair, the Panthers were dealing with significant losses on the defense Sunday, with starting cornerback Rasul Douglas on the reserve/COVID-19 list and safety Juston Burris going on the reserve/injured list.
But the team's third-down defense must improve no matter who's available.
"Give credit to them, they came out there and won every third down," Thompson said. "We just have to do better."