Saints' secondary locked down the Panthers

Saints defensive backs help keep Newton, Panthers on the ground

Trailing 14-6 with a little more than two minutes to go in the first half Sunday night, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton hiked the ball from the shotgun formation and glanced down the field.

Newton saw Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins going stride-for-stride with Panthers wideout Ted Ginn Jr. New Orleans cornerback Corey White was draped over wide receiver and former LSU star Brandon LaFell. Safety Kenny Vaccaro blanketed tight end Greg Olsen, and wide receiver Steve Smith couldn’t separate himself from cornerback Keenan Lewis.

Soon, defensive end Cameron Jordan muscled his way around right tackle Byron Bell and wrestled Newton to the turf of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The Panthers punted; seven plays later, New Orleans pushed its lead to 15 points.

That sequence not only helped the Saints (10-3) beat Carolina 31-13. It also illustrated how standout coverage by the Saints’ secondary facilitated their five third-down sacks of Newton, whose 160 yards passing against New Orleans were his second fewest this season.

“We did a good job of keeping (Carolina’s) players in front of us,” Saints coach Sean Payton said Monday about his secondary.

Saints safety Roman Harper added: “Everybody was all on. We all had a sense of focus and urgency last night, and you could really see that.”

There’s no doubt Newton could see that. His longest completion went for 17 yards — and it didn’t come until after he was sacked for the final time late in the fourth quarter.

Before that, outside linebacker Junior Galette had sacked Newton once each in the first and third periods, and Jordan had a sack in the second quarter. Those plays held the Panthers to a field goal and two punts as New Orleans headed into the fourth quarter with a 24-6 lead.

If the Panthers (9-4) thought the Saints might let them pad their numbers late in the contest with meaningless yards through the air, they learned that would not be the case when Newton hoped to pass from the shotgun on a third-and-20 early in the fourth quarter.

Lewis was locked in step with Smith after the snap. Harper was bodied up to Olsen. White stuck to Ginn Jr. Jenkins shadowed wide receiver Domenik Hixon until handing him off to Vaccaro.

Jordan, in the meantime, slipped by Bell and dragged Newton down for a 7-yard loss, forcing another punt. The Saints scored their last touchdown eight plays later.

A 25-point lead didn’t cause New Orleans’ secondary to loosen up on their assignments. Facing a third-and-goal from New Orleans’ 4 with 6:02 to go in the game, Newton seemed like he wanted to connect with Smith on a quick slant from the left.

But Vaccaro popped Smith in the chest with a left forearm and disrupted the route. Nearby, LaFell couldn’t free himself from Lewis. Newton began looking right, but Galette by then had blown past left tackle Jordan Gross and was in the process of hauling the quarterback down for a 13-yard loss.

Galette’s three sacks were the most he’s ever had. His third one increased the Saints’ sack total this year to 43, the most they’ve had since 2001.

“The offense did a great job by putting us ahead,” Galette said. “We just responded defensively and got after the quarterback.”

Newton on the ensuing play delivered a 17-yard touchdown pass to Smith, but it was inconsequential. After getting a paltry 4.7 yards per pass attempt, Newton and the Panthers had fallen a game behind the Saints in the NFC South with three weeks left in the regular season.

“I was trying to take what the defense gave me,” Newton, in part, told reporters after his team’s defeat. “But those guys were just better than us.”

Harper said, “We come like that every game, and (we’re) going to be tough. ... It’s just sometimes mentally ... some ... things get in the way of our performing at a high level.”

Nothing has gotten in the way of the Saints’ defense playing at a high level at the Superdome this season. New Orleans is 7-0 there, allowing just 15.4 points and 267.4 yards per game.

It’s a different story on the road, where the Saints are 3-3, surrendering 22.5 points and 367.5 yards per game.

The Saints visit St. Louis (5-8) on Sunday and Carolina on Dec. 22. They host Tampa Bay (4-9) on Dec. 29 to close out the regular season.