METAIRIE, LA (WVUE) - The Panthers got one of the toughest challenges of their undefeated season in week three when the Luke McCown-led Saints came within inches of a Josh Norman game-sealing interception being Brandin Cooks a game-winning touchdown. Since then, the Saints have continued on their up-and-down trajectory while Carolina remains undefeated.
Sean Payton discussed the challenge ahead with reporters Wednesday morning via teleconference. The following is a copy of that conversation, as transcribed by the New Orleans Saints:
Is Cam Newton playing as well as he has ever been and what are the improvements you see?
"Yes, I think just looking at this season all of his numbers. First off the most important one is his team is 11-0 and he is a guy that has been a part of a lot of winning teams and he is getting the ball down the field well. They're right at I'd say the top. One of the top 10 teams in attempts of 21 or more yards. They're fifth in the NFL in completions of balls 21 or more yards. His efficiency numbers, I think he has a 111 rating when they're throwing it down the field. I think they're getting production. They are getting big plays whether it is (Greg) Olsen or (Ted) Ginn. I think he's very poised and confident going through his progressions. You see him making the checks at the line of scrimmage. Obviously since day one he has been a threat as a runner, but man he is throwing it exceptionally well and I think there is a calmness to what they are doing offensively and the confidence if they are changing the play or protection. It all starts with their efficiency in the run game and then carries over to their big play opportunities. He has gotten better year by year and with a player like that you can specifically see it and you can point to games actually where there is another hurdle accomplished."
Have you guys tried a bunch of different things against the zone read?
"Well I think this number one I think that you do have to have some variation. We have had some real good plans and had real good execution some games and we have had some others that it just didn't materialize. We split with them I don't know how many times now and last year it was opposite. It was home and away. The year before that it was winning at home losing away. They have been some hard fought games and obviously when the quarterback has the potential to carry it that additional half man advantage you have to find a way to compliment it defensively and that it one of the challenges and the other challenge would be the challenge of Cam in that there is a guy assigned to him and yet he gains six yards on a run. He is a physical player and I think this you are seeing his runs occur obviously in the red area and obviously he is throwing with a lot of confidence in the field."
Last game was there a lot more hovering around (Cam Newton) him which allowed him to throw the ball?
"Yeah listen we played a few different fronts. I think what stood out to me was Olsen in the red area and then they hit some shot plays. Obviously Cam had the short yardage naked boot(leg). We have to look closely and improve our red zone defense. In a game like this in the last five times these two teams have played four times the winning team in the red zone 20 yards and in four of those five times the winner has won the red zone battle and not have to settle for a field goal, but able to score touchdowns and I think that they are doing a real fine job in the red area offensively and that is one of the things that we have to look closely at."
When you think back to when you were 11-0 what was it like for you and what is it like coming at it from the other side?
"Well with regards to our team every Wednesday I come up here and just after I'm finished with the presentation I call you guys up and so it's 20 minutes of going through the team that we are playing and how the key contributors are and how they are winning football games. Our players understand that we are playing a fantastic team, but the better question is how this team is 11-0 and here is how they are doing it and then in regards to turnovers and showing the numbers in regards to the takeaways, showing how they defend the run. What they are doing offensively that is really played out well for them this year. The comparison to 2009 I think that's not as significant another words the focus with this group as a team because there is only maybe 4-5 guys that were here in 2009, but clearly you start playing winning football and the weeks go by fairly quickly and you expect to do the little things well and you expect to win each week and that confidence gets rolling and you are seeing it right now."
Does the mental approach change defending the read option?
"I think by formation there are certain formations that would be zone read or quarterback run formations different then then maybe you're under center with two backs."
Would it be fair to say this has been Drew's most challenging season?
"When we finish the year we can reflect on (that). I think anytime you are having a season like we are having it's my most challenging season, Drew's most challenging season, Mickey's most challenging season, Jahri Evans' most challenging season. I think that shoot that's a result of being 4-7 and I think that he has done a lot of things. He has played in a number of these games at an extremely high level. I think as a team we have to look at what are the specifics of where we need to improve. I wouldn't be ready to say that no way."
What you thought the challenges Drew has had to overcome?
"Well you know he went through an injury which really was the first. I think and you'd have to ask him, but I think he is throwing it better than this year than a year ago. I think he worked real hard In the offseason and last year when he had that oblique injury that happened at training camp and it doesn't just go away after training camp and that is a tough injury for a quarterback, but I would say in fairness to the question I think every year there are some specific things that become more challenging less challenging and I think that would be no different this year, but watching him third down and just watching him in the timing of what we are doing it's been good."
Along that line how much have you been following the events of Peyton Manning in Denver and do you ever think you would have to deal with a situation like that at some point?
"I probably have followed it from afar but I haven't really thought much about it. The immediate thought is Carolina. I don't think that chapter's closed yet. He has to overcome the injury. I'm sure that he'll receive the treatment and eventually begin to fully recover and work itself out. It's kind of cliché in sport though, right? We saw it with Kobe Bryant last night. We saw it with Montana. We've seen it with all kinds of athletes and coaches. I don't see that being anytime soon here."
Can you take anything from the first game of the year even with Luke McCown having played quarterback in the first game?
"It's good tape to study. I think that when you're a divisional team you have a better feel for each other personnel wise first off and secondly, (you have a better idea of) what teams like to do. It's to this point in the season and you are playing a division team. Obviously you have a ton of film available for your cut ups and then the experience of having played them twice a year. That was one of the tapes Monday that you want to get a quick look at before you get the Dallas film in."
The message to your team is how Carolina is 11-0 is what you said, but is there any message about knocking off a team so undefeated so far into the season?
"I think it's the desire to win and (the possibility of) a quality win. When you're playing someone like Carolina the way they're playing right now, the margin for error is slim. For us, the details throughout the week and how we go about doing this and communicating that and how we want to play this game (are the priority). Yes, you get excited to play a team that's having this type of success. There's a competitive nature in you that clearly in our case, we haven't won here. We've lost three weeks in a row now."
Does that help you turn the page a little quicker, the fact that the team is undefeated and is a division game? Does that help you focus a little more? Is the opportunity to defeat an undefeated team something they could hold onto for the remainder of the season?
"We want to accumulate wins and this weekend's our next opportunity to do that. I don't think any player goes into this game thinking if we can win this game, we have our little contestant badge. We want to win games. This next game is a division game. It certainly means something and that's what the preparation and focus is on."