CHARLOTTE, N.C. — They looked out of sorts and out of rhythm, again, until it mattered, again.
The start of the 2023 season for the New Orleans Saints will not go down in history as the most aesthetically pleasing, but winning ugly counts for something in the NFL, and in consecutive weeks the Saints have emerged at the top of the pile after beating the Carolina Panthers 20-17 on Monday Night Football.?
It's the first time the Saints have started 2-0 since 2013.
"We’re going to have to keep working, keep grinding and continue to get better, but as we do that, to get some wins along the way, it’s a good problem to have," Saints coach Dennis Allen said.
Yet again, it was the Saints defense that kept the game manageable while the offense figured things out. Carolina managed next to nothing against New Orleans in the first three quarters, and by the time the Panthers finally got going, it was too late.
The Saints offense, led by prized offseason acquisition Derek Carr, endured a lackluster first half before finding a finishing kick late. New Orleans mustered only six points in the first 42 minutes of game time before putting together a pair of touchdown drives in the final 18 minutes.
Running back Tony Jones — who was elevated from the practice squad earlier in the day, then pushed into bell-cow duty after Jamaal Williams left the game with a hamstring injury — finished off both drives with a pair of 2-yard scoring runs.
And for the second straight week, Carr saved his best for late in the game. After struggling with the Panthers pass rush in the first half, Carr hit passes of 42 yards to Chris Olave and 45 yards to Rashid Shaheed to set up both touchdowns.
"There’s so much we have to clean up, but it feels so good to clean it up when you win," Carr said. "We’re 2-0, and I don’t think we’ve played at the level we’re all expecting to play at yet, but we’re going to keep striving, we’re going to keep working and make those corrections."
The Saints had two good looks at the end zone in the first half, stringing together a pair of drives that lasted a dozen or more plays that put them inside the Carolina 10-yard line. But both of those drives resulted in short field goals.
The first of those drives was a 15-play march that got as far as the Carolina 8-yard line. But then Williams was stuffed for a loss, pushing them back to the 10-yard line on a second-down run, and Carr’s third-down pass fluttered incomplete.
The second drive penetrated even deeper, a 12-play drive that pushed New Orleans to the Carolina 4-yard line. But once again, a run play was stuffed for a loss, and Carr’s third-down pass sailed right past Jones, who was open but had not yet turned his head to look for the ball.
The low point came when Carr floated a pass toward Olave on a deep crossing route. Carr did not appear to see former Saints safety Vonn Bell standing right where Olave was running, and Bell picked off the pass in Saints' territory.
For the second straight week, the Saints offense looked disjointed. The offensive line allowed too many pressures, and the pressure looked to get to Carr, whose accuracy took a major dip as he completed 58.3% of his passes.
And, for the second straight week, the Saints defense bailed out the other side. Panthers quarterback Bryce Young, the top pick in this year’s draft, could barely find any breathing room.
Young entered the fourth quarter with only 84 yards through the air as the defensive front four kept up a constant barrage of pressure.
The Panthers drove 31 yards on their opening drive to pick up a field goal, and then none of the ensuing seven drives gained more than 24 yards.
The Saints sacked Young three times in that span, including a strip-sack by defensive end Carl Granderson that set up the Saints at their own 41-yard line.
Carolina finally found some traction late in the game. Young hit Adam Thielen for a touchdown and an ensuing 2-point conversion inside the final two minutes, but Saints linebacker D’Marco Jackson recovered the following onside kick to put the game away.
The Panthers finished with 239 yards of offense, 137 of which came on their final two drives.?
"It’s a unit that expects to go out there and perform at a high level," Allen said of the defensive performance. "They’ve proven time and time again they’re capable of going out there and doing that, so that’s kind of the expectation.
"Those guys want to be great and they hold each other accountable."