3 things to watch in Saints-Panthers: Is it time for a throwback Mike Thomas game?


The New Orleans Saints are in a familiar spot, sitting at 1-0 after a satisfying victory in the season-opener.

New Orleans has now opened its season with a victory in five straight years. The problem? Each time Week 2 featured a loss, and in many instances one frustrating enough to erase the good vibes from a positive start.

Will this season be any different? Time will tell, but the Saints do appear to be in an advantageous position. They are mostly healthy with only two players (Kendre Miller and J.T. Gray) listed as questionable, they have a defense that is already playing at a high level and gets to face down a rookie in his second career start, and an offense that has an array of playmakers. A 2-0 start with Alvin Kamara suspended would feel like stealing in a season that features the easiest schedule in football.

THE GAME | Saints (1-0) at Panthers (0-1)
- Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina
- When: 6:15 p.m. (central), Monday, Sept. 18
- Listen: WWL AM-870; FM-105.3 & the Audacy app
- Pregame: First take with Steve Geller & Charlie Long, 2-4 p.m.; Countdown to Kickoff with Bobby Hebert & Steve Geller, 4-6 p.m.

So what will be the keys to victory? Here are three things I'm watching for and a bit of lagniappe heading into a Monday Night Football showdown up in Carolina.


It's been a long week of the same question in the locker room: How can Trevor Penning get better? We've heard a lot of the same ... fix the mistakes, stay confident, embrace the grind. The team believes in their first round pick.

What's been clear in the conversations I've had: There's no panic, but there is urgency. Particularly in pass-pro, he's got to accelerate the curve. In Week 1 he was attacked with speed, he was attacked with power. He didn't handle a ton well. He looked off-balance and at times lost in space. He looked very much like a rookie who was a bit overwhelmed.

That's not the end of the world, in fact it should've been expected. Rookies struggle, and with injuries robbing him of the majority of his rookie season, that's effectively what he is. But his team is sticking behind him. They believe in his ability, and the idea that he's not athletic enough to play left tackle is a miss. It's all about fundamentals and improving them. He needs to play angles better, and I'm sure he'll be schemed more help this week to get him settled in.

It doesn't have to be perfect. But it does have to get better. I expect it will.


That's the catch phrase of the defensive line, particularly the big guys on the interior: Stop the run, then have fun.

That means that before you even consider getting after the quarterback, you first have to shut down the run game and give the opposition no choice but to drop back and try to beat you that way. I don't expect the Saints to blitz Bryce Young or try to get exotic. I expect things to be simple. Devote bodies to stopping Miles Sanders and Chuba Hubbard, single up the receivers on the outside and say: "OK Bryce, what you got?"

If he comes out slinging and forces an adjustment, you go ahead and do that. Until that point, I like the Saints' secondary continuing their run of takeaways. It's also worth noting that the system that shut Young down in his debut was masterminded by Ryan Nielsen. The Saints defense, for obvious reasons, should be able to replicate those looks.

And hey, at least it's not Derrick Henry.


The last time we saw Michael Thomas in Carolina he was walking off the field for treatment on a foot injury that would ultimately end his season. Something tells me he's eager to revert that narrative.

If he can, it'd be nice for that to be replaced with his previous MNF agenda: Absolute domination. The last two times Thomas played on that stage, both in 2019, he had averages of 11 catches and 125 yards.

In Week 1 we saw an effective, but not otherworldly version of Michael Thomas with 5 catches and 61 yards. That's probably close to what we should expect for MT week to week.

But, regardless of the broadcast, I think this matchup does set up well for him. The Panthers will have no choice but to devote extra attention to Chris Olave, and Rashid Shaheed put the league on notice with his game-changing speed in Week 1. Combine that with the absence of Jaycee Horn and yikes. Who, exactly, will the Panthers line up across from Mike? Will it be CJ Henderson? With the pass rush, I expect Carr to be looking MT's way early and often.

To me, that's where we're at with the 2023 version of Can't Guard Mike. He's not going to be seeing double-digit targets every week. The Saints simply don't need that out of him. But they do need him to be available so when the matchup dictates heavy volume for him, he's there to be unguardable. That's what I think happens this week.


We talked about Penning above, but he's not alone: All the blocking has to get better. James Hurst said the team identified as many as 10 plays where the team got the look they wanted, but failed on 1-on-1 blocking opportunities. That's got to be better this week, and it'll likely be the most visible in what's hopefully an improved rushing attack. Carolina has a good front, but nowhere near the same as the Titans as it comes to the run game. Improve the blocking, the rush yards will follow. ... Payton Turner is now on IR, so who steps up? Dennis Allen wouldn't commit to Isaiah Foskey diving fully into that vacated role and mentioned Kyle Phillips as a player who could see action. That snap share will be interesting to watch, with Foskey likely being a better pass downs player at this point in his career. It sure would be nice to see the second-round rookie get some quality action in. ... A Kendre Miller debut? He's questionable, but it sure would be nice to see the rookie get out there.

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