- Associated Press - Thursday, September 21, 2017

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - It’s time to find out if Carolina’s No. 1-ranked defense is for real.

After dominating performances against sub-par offenses in San Francisco and Buffalo, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly knows the Panthers will face their stiffest test Sunday when Carolina plays host to Drew Brees and the Saints’ high-flying offense.

“Their offense is still what it is - it’s explosive,” Kuechly said. “Drew makes it run and they’re very creative with the ball.”

The Panthers have been so dominant on defense that they’ve surrendered only two field goals in eight quarters and only once have allowed an opponent to reach inside their 25-yard line - and even that ended in a turnover on downs. Carolina is looking to become the first team to hold its first three opponents to three points or less since the 1937 Bears.

Carolina’s defense already consisted of several star players including Kuechly, outside linebacker Thomas Davis, defensive tackle Kawann Short and safety Kurt Coleman. But the team didn’t stand pat in the offseason, adding 17-year veteran defensive end Julius Peppers, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Adams to the mix, bringing a veteran flavor to go along with two young, but improving cornerbacks in James Bradberry and Daryl Worley.

Kuechly said the defense is built around a trust in one another.

“When you add pieces on defense like Pep and Mike and Captain, hey, you don’t need a lot of time to acclimate to your team and to your system,” Kuechly said. “They make transitions more seamless than maybe a young guy would.”

Said Brees: “They’re very good. They’re extremely disciplined. … It’s a very sound defense that plays really well together.”

The Saints come in averaging 386.5 yards per game on offense, third-best in the NFL.

They’re also a team desperate for a win, knowing they don’t want to fall into an 0-3 hole, three games behind in the NFC South.

Things to watch Sunday when the Saints and Panthers renew their rivalry:

SPICING IT UP: Peppers has been a difference maker for Carolina. The No. 1 pick by the Panthers in 2002 returned this year and already is paying dividends with 2 ½ sacks in a part-time role.

“He is in a perfect role for them,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He is someone that can play on the edge. He has played inside. When you put him together with Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei, and Short, you start getting a really salty front that plays fresh.”

DOUBTING THOMAS: Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, who had a standout rookie campaign with 1,137 yards and nine TDs last season, is now adjusting to being the focus of opposing defenses.

It hasn’t helped that the Saints traded away Brandin Cooks and that Willie Snead started the season with a three-game drunk driving suspension. While Thomas leads the Saints with 10 catches for 134 yards, he has no TDs and doesn’t yet have the sense that New Orleans’ offense is in sync.

“Of course, that can be frustrating, just because you know what the standard is here,” Thomas said.

DEFENSES DOWN: Cam Newton is still shaking off the rust following shoulder surgery as evident by overthrowing two receivers for would-be touchdowns.

But playing the Saints’ 32nd ranked pass defense could be just what the former league MVP needs to get on track. Minnesota’s Sam Bradford and New England’s Tom Brady have combined to complete 80.3 percent of their passes and throw for 793 yards and six TDs against the Saints.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “But we’ve got 14 more games.”

REPLACING OLSEN: Greg Olsen is coming off three straight 1,000-yard season, so the Panthers need to find a way to replace the tight end’s production while he’s out with a broken foot.

Rivera said veteran tight end Ed Dickson is “more than capable” of filling in for Olsen. Dickson hasn’t been a big factor in Carolina’s passing game the last three years, but did catch 54 passes in 2011 for the Ravens. Christian McCaffrey and Kelvin Benjamin should see more balls thrown their way in Olsen’s absence.

GROUNDED: The offseason acquisition of running back Adrian Peterson got a lot of attention, but has yet to translate to production on the ground. The Saints’ running game ranked 28th through Week 2, averaging 70.5 yards.

“It’s tough, of course,” Peterson said. “I understand where we are as a team, getting the pieces together and just kind of adjusting.”


AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.


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