Against the Panthers, Saints are starting from scratch

The Saints’ NFC South lead is gone. But their struggles in Seattle are in the past, too. Starting with Sunday night’s matchup with surging Carolina, it’s all about the stretch drive.

A few days after Seattle trounced New Orleans 34-7 on Monday, a sportswriter began asking Saints coach Sean Payton what he hoped his offense would improve on as the team prepared to host the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night.

Payton didn’t wait for the end of the question, immediately answering: “Shoot — pretty much everything.”

First, the bad news: If that improvement is going to take place this week, it will have to come against a defense that had been No. 1 in the NFL until the Seahawks manhandled the Saints (9-3) and wrested the top spot away from Carolina (9-3).

Of course, the good news is the Saints are in a class of their own at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, especially in the evening hours. And that may be the main reason the Saints sound certain they can right themselves against stingy Carolina, even if in Seattle they posted their fewest total yards (188) since September 2003 and their fewest points since October 2008.

“We’ve done things well for a very long time,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “(The Seattle) game does not set that back. One game does not change our mindset, our confidence level, our attitude in any way.”

The Panthers will be trying to break their tie with the Saints in the NFC South with a defense that’s allowing the NFL’s fewest points per game (13.1) and second-fewest yards per game (289.8).

The unit has recorded 39 sacks, second-most in the NFL. It has picked off 16 passes and recovered 10 fumbles, tied for second- and fifth-most in the NFL.

Saints right guard Jahri Evans attributes Carolina’s knack for takeaways to a pass rush primarily led by defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. Seven-year veteran Johnson, who has 8.5 sacks, missed the Panthers’ previous two games with a knee sprain but is expected to play. Hardy, in his fourth year, has seven sacks.

Johnson and Hardy owe much of their production to rookie nose tackle Star Lotulelei, who often attracts double teams.

“The more things you can do pressure-wise and stopping guys leads to more turnovers and balls coming out badly that normally wouldn’t,” Evans said. “They’re tops in the NFL for a reason, and we just have to be prepared for it.”

It also helps that Carolina counts on second-year man Luke Kuechly, “one of the better middle linebackers, if not the best, in the game,” Evans said. Kuechly last season topped the league in tackles and earned the AP’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He’s No. 10 in the league this year with 102 tackles.

“A lot of good talent and a team playing with confidence is dangerous,” said Strief, alluding to Carolina’s eight-game winning streak.

And that’s why the only good thing about the Saints playing Seattle on Monday night was that their next game was at the Superdome, where New Orleans has won its past dozen prime-time games, including two playoff contests.

In six games there this year, New Orleans has racked up an astounding 33.2 points and 450.8 yards an outing. Brees has thrown for 19 touchdowns, 2,044 yards and just three interceptions at home.

To compare, all season, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has passed for 2,312 yards and 15 TDs, while Carolina’s Cam Newton has thrown for 2,616 yards and 19 scores.

It’s not just the Saints offense that has been operating at elite levels at the Superdome, where Payton hasn’t lost since the end of the 2010 season. The defense under the command of first-year coordinator Rob Ryan is downright Carolina-like at home, giving up just 272.2 yards and 15.8 points per game.

Neither Kuechly nor Panthers coach Ron Rivera were optimistic that the beatdown the Saints suffered in Seattle would suddenly change the way New Orleans plays in its building.

“You look at the season as a whole — it’s not who they are as an offense,” Kuechly said about the Saints’ misadventure in Seattle.

“Last I looked, there’s still Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham and Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles and Marques Colston,” Rivera said. “This a good football team. ... Sometimes strange things happen.”