METAIRIE, La. — When Drew Brees stepped up in the pocket on his fifth drop-back of Monday night’s game against Seattle, he couldn’t have known just how game-changing the moment would become.
Cliff Avril darted around the Saints’ right end, quickly creeping up on Brees as he worked his way towards the line of scrimmage. The defensive end knocked the quarterback from behind, the ball popped loose and Seattle’s Michael Bennett caught it, returning it 22 yards for a touchdown.
These are the defensive moments the Saints have been missing in the past five games and they’re the type the Carolina Panthers have thrived on in the past eight.
Sunday night, when the Saints (9-3) host the Panthers (9-3) for the lead in the NFC South, New Orleans can only hope their luck changes.
After taking the ball away 15 times in the first seven games, they’ve done so only twice in the past five. And in those past five games, the turnover differential is minus-five.
“We’ve had our opportunities,” Saints Coach Sean Payton said. “We’ve had our hands on a handful of balls. Hopefully they come and we get a clump of them this weekend. I think that statistic is important.”
It was important against Seattle.
That one turnover changed the complexion of the game. New Orleans was down only 3-0 at the point. But Bennett’s fumble return for a touchdown gave the Seahawks a two-score lead, a deficit from which the Saints could never recover.
It won’t get any easier for New Orleans. Carolina is fourth in the NFL in turnover differential and its 26 takeaways are just one less than league-leading Seattle.
During the Panthers’ eight-game win streak, they’ve been better than most. They’re plus-10, having taken the ball away 17 times, averaging better than two per game.
“That’s a lot of takeaways in that stretch,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “(It’s) part of the reason they have won eight in a row.”
Panthers Coach Ron Rivera said part of the improvement this season is young players finally getting experience.
“I think the maturing of the players within the scheme,” Rivera said. “I think last year took awhile and once these guys got a hold of the scheme, (they) understood it.”
That holds true for the Panthers’ offense. While Carolina’s improvement largely has been put on the defense, its quarterback Cam Newton’s ability to play smart football that has helped, as well.
The good news for New Orleans is there have been opportunities. Safety Kenny Vaccaro forced a fumble in Seattle. Malcolm Jenkins nearly had an interception against Atlanta while Corey White almost picked off Russell Wilson in Seattle.
And if the Saints can begin to get the takeaways again, everything changes.
“Takeaways can change the game,” Vaccaro said. “They might be killing you, but if you look at the end of the game, the turnover ratio is what really matters at the end.”