1. Can the Saints Defense Play Decent?
I'm not even looking for awesome or good at this point. I will settle for decent. The run defense was ok for me last week, the pass defense was bad and the pass rush didn't exist. I'd like to see the Saints disrupt Cam Newton a bit and actually cover receivers. Maybe Jabari Greer's return will help, but i'd also like to see Martez Wilson and Junior Galette get an increased workload on third downs. More than anything, I'd love to see the Saints defense make something happen. Get a big stop, create a turnover, generate a game changing play, something. I'm not asking them to hold the Panthers under 20 points, I realize that's virtual impossibility. But if they can play well enough to get out of the way of the Saints' offense, that's good enough for me.
2. Can the Saints Cut Back on Penalties?
What we saw last week, 12 penalties, is something Sean Payton would have never tolerated. He preaches discipline and focus and neither of those things were on display at any point last week. I just hope the Saints are prepared more properly this week. If we see miscues at that rate this week I'll seriously start to question the competency of this staff sans Payton/Vitt. The Saints have a group of players that typically play with a high IQ and I want to see the Saints return to that. The Saints had two penalties last week that turned 4th downs for the Redskins into first downs. There is no play that hurts a team more than that. So goal #1 is ZERO penalties on fourth down, PLEASE, for the love of all that is holy. We're aiming to avoid self inflicted wounds here. It's hard enough to win in the NFL when you play well, but when you beat yourself it's a death sentence.
3. Can the Saints Showcase More Balance on Offense?
The Saints didn't run the football hardly at all last week. The Saints are at their best offensive when Ingram/PT/Sproles are moving the chains on the ground, which helps take pressure off the passing game. The Saints hurt opponents most when they are throwing on second and manageable. Those are situations the Saints need to get themselves in by imposing the run game. It's hard to conclude they didn't run the football against the Redskins because they didn't even try. A true commitment to running the football occassionally (I'm not asking for 40 carries here) will help the offense be infinitely more efficient. This will also help the offensive line perform better in pass protection, something they failed at doing properly last week.
4. Do the Injured Players Look Rusty?
Last week Marques Colston didn't practice all week due to an injury, David Hawthorne was in his first game back from knee surgery, Will Smith didn't practice all week due to his temporary suspension, Turk McBride was limited all week with an ankle, and Joe Morgan was dressed despite a knee injury in the final preseason game. Those five were arguably the worst on the field and they just didn't physically look ready to play in that game. I'm looking at those five to play better, and if they can't due to physical issues, then they shouldn't be playing. Similarly the Saints should get Jabari Greer back this week - at least I hope. Still, it's tough to re-adjust to game speed and it likely won't be smooth sailing for him at first as he re-acclimates himself to playing. The Saints need these guys I've named to play well to win as they are key parts to what they do. Hopefully they can shake off the rust.
5. Can the Saints Take Advantage of a Huge Mismatch on Special Teams?
The Panthers are completely inexperienced on special teams. They have a rookie punter, a rookie kick returner and a kicker that attempted just three career field goals in his NFL career since 2007, including a miss from 30 yards out. By comparison, the Saints are very mature and solid as a unit on special teams. Don't underestimate this advantage, special teams is a phase of the game that many times goes ignored by fans. But the mismatch here is sizable. The Saints have Garrett Hartley, Thomas Morstead, Darren Sproles and Courtney Roby as a gunner... all NFL veterans that have been proven commodities in the league. By all accounts the Saints should perform much better in this area, and if they don't it really levels the playing field for Carolina. This is an area I'm really looking for the Saints to dominate to give themselves an advantage with; both from a big play and field possession standpoint.
You mention 2 penalties on 4th down. 1 was Harpers which I do not count, just as I do not count Brees his 2nd interception. A hail mary is a gamble and considered risk free. So an INT at 0:00 is not a real INT.
What I am looking for is how will the Oline perform. The thing that killed the Saints most last week was the 5 3 and outs. If those didn't happen Saints put up points on the board. Use time and Skins can't put any points up in the time the Saints have the ball. So in my opinion it is all down to the Oline and in particular Bushrod. Will he hold the ends in check. I can not remember the Panthers havind good defensive ends... so if that pans out it means Brees will punish the Panthers. Luckily we have Brees who has a work ethic that is motivational and sets the bar for the other players. If I know him, he worked extra hard because of the L last week. So that means the team is very very sharp. If not... It means Sean is really missed here.