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The Saints' offense a couple weeks ago looked like an unstoppable force. Coach Sean Payton was at the height of his play-calling brilliance, Reggie Bush finally was living up to his draft status and Drew Brees was putting up MVP numbers. With wide receiver Marques Colston and tight end Jeremy Shockey due to return from injuries, New Orleans appeared ready to dismantle defenses across the league -- starting with Carolina's on Sunday.
But it never happened. The Panthers didn't dominate Brees and his teammates, but they contained the Saints -- and that was enough. New Orleans did cough up two turnovers, but the line kept Brees pretty clean (one sack) and the offense finished with respectable totals of 343 yards and 17 first downs. So, how exactly did Carolina hold perhaps the league's most explosive offense to just seven points? Just as important, how do future opponents keep all of New Orleans' weapons under wraps?
First, let's be clear: Every team has its own strengths and weaknesses, so there is no single "best" way to slow the Saints' offense. Not everyone can pull it off like the Panthers, whose versatile secondary allowed them to mix in a lot of Cover 4 coverage concepts. The strategy allowed Carolina to get one or both safeties involved in run support when necessary, while remaining sound in coverage on the back end. But without cornerbacks Ken Lucas, Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall, who are able to match up in man coverage on the perimeter, the Panthers wouldn't have had the flexibility to make it work so effectively.
Still, Carolina's performance gives defenses the beginning of a blueprint to follow against New Orleans: use mostly sub packages, be prepared to play sideline to sideline, squeeze Brees' passing windows, disrupt routes, be physical and disciplined. Opponents must engage in a cat-and-mouse game to keep Brees guessing because he is so good at reading defenses and coverages before the snap. An opposing coordinator must mix up the schemes used against Brees.
A defense's personnel and philosophy will be determining factors when choosing schemes. Some combination of front-four pressure, physical coverage within that five-yard contact zone and deep-safety help seems to be the way to slow the Saints. Cover 2, man-under two-deep and Cover 4 have the potential to provide those ingredients. Man coverage concepts shouldn't be ignored -- again, mixing things up is key -- but a defense must keep one or both safeties in the hole. One of the greatest strengths of this offense is its run-after-the-catch production, so defenders need to be in position to bring down a receiver immediately after the ball arrives.
With Reggie Bush expected to miss 2-4 weeks after knee surgery, the Saints' offense becomes less dynamic. Defenses should be able to line up with base personnel more often and figure to have simpler reads. But the above blueprint still applies, especially because Aaron Stecker is versatile enough to play a "Bush Lite" role in the offense. In the end, the best strategy for beating the Saints -- play smart, be physical and sustain drives on offense to keep Brees and the offense on the sideline -- is just plain good football.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.