Film study: Reviewing Saints' defense

The New Orleans Saints' defense was as good as it has been all season for most of Sunday’s 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers. But colossal breakdowns at the end of each half did them in. Here are some observations after reviewing the tape:

The final drive: First of all, quarterback Cam Newton lived up to his "Superman" persona on the Panthers’ 32-second touchdown drive to win the game in the final minute. It was a stunning development after Newton had done practically nothing since the opening drive. But he deserves tons of credit for the way he stood in the pocket and delivered three strikes for a total of 65 yards to win the game.

The first was the most impressive -- a 37-yard catch-and-run by receiver Ted Ginn Jr. Newton held on to the ball for a long time, waiting for a receiver to break open. The Saints sent only four pass-rushers, but the pocket did eventually start to collapse around Newton, who actually got hit in the facemask by Saints defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker as he delivered the throw. ...The speedy Ginn was a step ahead of Saints safety Roman Harper on a deep crossing route. Then backup safety Isa Abdul-Quddus missed a chance to tackle Ginn for about a 25-yard gain instead, when Abdul-Quddus took too shallow of an angle in the open field.

The Saints’ four-man pass rush was more successful on the second play of the drive, with Walker batting down a pass at the line of scrimmage. But Newton followed with a nice 14-yard completion to tight end Greg Olsen on second-and-10 against tight coverage by Harper (and also against a four-man rush).

Newton then spiked the ball to stop the clock. Then he followed with the go-ahead 14-yard touchdown pass to receiver Domenik Hixon in the left corner of the end zone. The Saints blitzed with six pass-rushers on the play, but no one got pressure on Newton. Safety Malcolm Jenkins came the closest, but his path was slightly altered by just enough of a shove from fullback Mike Tolbert. … In the end zone, Hixon broke open with a sharp out route about two yards in front of cornerback Corey White, who was in single coverage.

Williams set free: The other big breakdown for the Saints' defense came on a one-play touchdown drive before halftime. Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams broke free for a 43-yard touchdown run up the middle. The Saints' defense got caught being over-aggressive on the play, blitzing seven men, including linebacker Curtis Lofton and cornerback White. That left very few defenders beyond the line of scrimmage when Williams came bursting through a big hole in the middle.

One of them -- linebacker David Hawthorne -- was taken out by a tremendous block from pulling left guard Travelle Wharton. The other -- Harper -- took himself out of the play by running to the outside of the line instead of the pile-up in the middle. It’s unclear if that was Harper's job (to make sure and contain the backside) or if he guessed wrong.

Harper review: I noticed Harper catching a lot of flak on social media for showing up in the vicinity of so many of those big plays Sunday. But Harper didn't look as bad on play-by-play review of the tape. He had solid coverage on Olsen at times. And clearly the Saints’ entire pass coverage was excellent throughout the day -- even after starting safety Kenny Vaccaro left with a fractured ankle in the first quarter.

Losing Vaccaro will hurt the Saints’ defense, though, even if Harper is a solid replacement. Vaccaro had been excellent lately -- including the first quarter of Sunday’s game in both coverage and as an open-field tackler (though he did earn a horse-collar and taunting penalty during his best tackle).

Coverage highs/lows: As I said, the coverage was mostly excellent on a day when Newton completed a total of 10 passes in the first 59 minutes of the game (and was sacked four times). The Saints’ defensive highlight was an interception by Jenkins in the red zone in the first quarter. Newton held the ball for a long time searching for an open receiver against a four-man rush (with Vaccaro in tight coverage against top receiver Steve Smith, among other matchups). Eventually, Newton tried to fire off a short pass to Ginn, but he threw behind him, and Ginn tipped the ball up in the air. Jenkins dove to catch the fluttering ball from behind.

The Saints’ coverage wasn’t perfect, though. They allowed a 44-yard pass to Smith on that first drive. Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis had pretty good coverage on Smith, but Smith beat him by a half-step down the field. And Newton dropped a gorgeous pass into a tight window for Smith to make a great catch (Lewis tried to swat the ball away but missed). The Saints blitzed six on that play, but Newton got rid of the ball just before safety Jenkins hit him.

The Saints later allowed a 29-yard pass to Ginn as well when he broke wide open in zone coverage against an apparent missed assignment.

Bringing heat: The Saints had four sacks in the game -- coming in a variety of ways (once with a three-man rush, once with a four-man rush and twice with blitzes). Outside linebacker Junior Galette’s sack on third-and-6 in the third quarter was impressive since it came on a three-man rush. He was the only rusher being single-teamed, and he got past standout left tackle Jordan Gross with a wicked spin move. And once again, the Saints’ coverage was excellent on that play -- including a good adjustment by new cornerback Trevin Wade that was highlighted on the replay.

Defensive end Akiem Hicks also made a great effort on a fourth-quarter sack during a four-man rush. He collapsed right guard Nate Chandler to swallow up Newton.

Lofton also made a great play on his sack on third-and-2 in the first quarter. Lofton found a clear path to Newton on a delayed blitz, and he did a great job of wrapping up Newton’s legs and not letting him escape.

And end Cameron Jordan finished off a 17-yard sack on third-and-8 in the second quarter on a heavy blitz that swarmed Newton from the start.

The Saints also pressured Newton into some key incompletions or short passes -- including a six-man rush from their "amoeba" formation on third-and-6 in the fourth quarter, when Harper hit Newton as he threw.

Hawthorne shines: The run defense was mostly excellent -- aside from Williams' breakaway TD. The Panthers had 17 other carries for a total of 38 yards. Hicks continued to stand out against the run. But the defender who shined most often on film for the second week in a row was Hawthorne -- who made great open-field hits against Newton on a keeper, Williams on a screen pass and Tolbert on a check-down pass, among other plays.