Insider's Take: Panthers v. Saints

The Carolina Panthers pushed the defending Super Bowl champions to their limit. Unfortunately, John Fox's team needs more than moral victories at this point -- it needs to dent the win column. Here is a look at what worked, what didn't and what's next after Week 4's divisional disappointment.

What Worked

--The Panthers don't have enough talent on offense to engineer sustained drives down the field, so it was vital for the team to author some big plays. Jeff Davidson's crew did exactly that when Jimmy Clausen hit Jonathan Stewart for a 55-yard TD strike and when DeAngelo Williams cut back against the grain for a 39-yard TD run. A third big play, a fourth-down conversion to David Gettis that went for 16 yards, put the Panthers in position to win the game late.

--Carolina's defense went in with the opposite mindset: Eliminate the big plays and force Drew Brees & Co. to march the length of the field. This would force the Saints to be perfect and give Ron Meeks' troops more chances to make plays. The strategy almost worked as the Panthers forced two takeaways (Sherrod Martin and Richard Marshall each forced fumbles recovered by James Anderson) and posted two sacks (Anderson and Charles Johnson). The Panthers had only two sacks on the season coming into the game, so that was a sign of progress.

--The Saints finished third in the league last season with 26 interceptions and were averaging a pick per game coming into Sunday's contest. It seemed like a bad recipe for rookie QB Jimmy Clausen, who was making his first road start, but he defied the odds and led the Panthers through their first game without an offensive turnover.

--The Saints reached the red zone four times and came away with just 10 points. To limit such a potent offense to one touchdown in four trips inside the 20-yard line is a testament to Carolina's defensive improvement.

What Didn't

--Good teams win close games. The Panthers, with a chance to pull the week's big upset, choked with the game on the line. This can be blamed on poor preparation or sloppy execution, but the main culprit was overly conservative play calling. Everyone knew the Panthers would run the ball once they reached the Saints' 36-yard line, including Usama Young, who sparked Carolina's game-costing backwards march by hitting Williams in the backfield for a 4-yard loss.

--The offense cannot sustain long drives, which is forcing the defense to spend too much time on the field. The offense had just one drive of more than seven plays, which came on its final drive of the game, resulting in the Saints holding more than a 16-minute edge in time of possession.

--The run defense has to be better. The Saints were without their top two running backs, yet a street free agent and an undrafted rookie (Ladell Betts and Chris Ivory) combined to carry 25 times for 114 yards (4.56 ypc). If the Panthers do a better job against the run, it will give their pass rush more opportunities to be successful.

--The loss of Steve Smith, who injured his ankle and was carted off the field, may be devastating. If he can't go against the Chicago Bears -- and the Panthers may be inclined to sit him with the bye week coming in Week 6 -- that would leave Clausen throwing to a pair of fellow rookies. That's hardly a formula for offensive success, especially knowing that Julius Peppers will be breathing down Clausen's neck.

--Punt returns have been an adventure for the Panthers since the offseason. That continued Sunday when Captain Munnerlyn coughed up Carolina's only giveaway of the game. Munnerlyn has been steady thus far, but as this season becomes more about progress than results (a philosophical change that is happening quickly), the team will want to take a look at explosive rookie Armanti Edwards, who has yet to escape the inactive list. Perhaps Smith's injury will open the door for Edwards.

What's Next

The Panthers welcome the Bears and former franchise player Julius Peppers. Carolina's all-time leader with 81 sacks, Peppers has been rejuvenated since joining the Bears and figures the be motivated to send a statement to his former team (marking the first time he has been motivated in Bank of America Stadium in years).

The week's other storyline will be the health of Bears QB Jay Cutler, who suffered a concussion on Sunday against the New York Giants. If Cutler can not play in Week 5, the Bears will turn to veteran Todd Collins, which would greatly help Carolina's chances of claiming its first win of the season.

What are Panthers fans saying about the 0-4 start? Find out in the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and also a long-time contributor to the network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. You can see more of his updates by following him on Twitter.

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