NEW ORLEANS -- Quick counts and Alvin Kamara.
Those are two things the Carolina Panthers will be more aware of today at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome when they face the New Orleans Saints in a rematch of a Week 3 game in Charlotte -- this time for the NFC South lead.
The Saints (8-3) won the first game 34-13 thanks to an early third-down conversion when quarterback Drew Brees caught the Panthers (8-3) off guard with a quick count and a 25-yard touchdown run by Kamara in the fourth-quarter.
The conversion came on the Saints' fifth offensive play. Carolina defenders weren't set when Brees took the snap and completed a 16-yard pass. Panthers coach Ron Rivera argued the Saints also weren't set and there should have been a penalty to negate the first down.
He sent the play into the league for review. He wouldn't comment other than to say the response was "favorable."
It wasn't favorable at the time because New Orleans, 0-2 coming into that game, went on to score a touchdown that snowballed into a 24-6 lead. The win propelled the Saints to eight straight wins before last week's loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
The Panthers were out of sync for much of the first game after that conversion. They gave up a season-high 149 yards rushing after giving up only 120 yard combined in the first two games.
Brees completed 22 of 29 pass attempts for 220 yards and three touchdowns.
"They do a really good job when they get into third-down situations, quick counting, keeping the defense off balance," Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis said. "As a defense, whenever the center's hands are on the ball, we've got to be ready to go."
The Panthers also have to be ready for Kamara, who scored his first NFL touchdown in the first meeting. The rookie out of Tennessee has become one of the league's best dual-threat backs, much like Christian McCaffrey has for Carolina.
ThePanthers will be trying to stop Kamara without end Charles Johnson, suspended for four games on Friday for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy. Carolina has allowed 1.6 fewer yards per rush with Johnson. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Panthers give up 3.3 yards per rush with Johnson on the field and 4.9 when he is not.
Kamara has four rushing touchdowns and three receiving in the past five games. He's averaging 7.1 yards a rush and 10.1 yards per catch this season.
"He's very smooth and he makes it look easy," Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "It's effortless for him. It's almost like he's gliding. It's not like he's real twitchy fast. He just makes guys miss, whether it's breaking tackles or ... He's interesting. I haven't seen a guy like him in a while."
Safety Kurt Coleman said the biggest difference in Kamara and McCaffrey is the way they turn short gains into big plays.
"He'll take a hit and he kind of goes limp to a side, but he keeps his balance with the other half of his body. Guys kind of fall off him," he said of Kamara. "He's breaking a lot of tackles with his elusiveness. His ability to just shake off the tackles with doing that.
"McCaffrey is just breaking ankles all day. They're both great young running backs that are able to do a lot."
Kuechly noticed another one of Kamara's effective tools.
"His ability to use his hand on the ground to keep himself up," he said. "I've seen him a couple of times do that. He's a difference maker. They use him well. ... He's taken that offense up a notch with what he's been able to do."
Both Kamara and McCaffrey figure to play a big role on Sunday. McCaffrey had a season-high nine catches on 11 targets for 101 yards in the first game against New Orleans. Though he has been dealing with a shoulder injury and focusing on the New Orleans defense, McCaffrey has also taken notice of Kamara.
"He's a heck of a player," the No. 8 pick of the draft said. "He's a threat in a lot of different ways. All the rookie running back class has been pretty stacked. It’s been fun following these guys. He's definitely one to watch. Props to him for sure."