Two days before they take on the Carolina Panthers, the New Orleans Saints just suffered a brutal COVID-19 blow. With Michael Thomas still working his way back to full strength, Drew Brees couldn’t afford to lose another receiver. Yet, with Emmanuel Sanders testing positive for COVID-19, the future Hall of Famer will have to rely on other options against a new-look Panthers team led by his former backup.
Emmanuel Sanders has had to step up with Michael Thomas out
Even without Michael Thomas in the lineup, the Saints still rank fifth in scoring. While Alvin Kamara deserves credit for his sensational season, veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders has also stepped up recently.
The 33-year-old joined New Orleans on a two-year, $16 million deal this offseason. Sanders started his career in Pittsburgh before developing into a star with the Denver Broncos. He got traded to the San Francisco 49ers last October and caught 36 passes for 502 yards in 10 regular-season games.
Sanders didn’t exactly start his Saints career off on a strong note. In his first two games, he totaled just four catches for 33 yards and one touchdown. However, with Thomas sidelined, the two-time Pro Bowler has filled a critical role in Sean Payton’s offense.
In Week 3, Sanders caught four passes for 56 yards and a TD in a close loss to the Green Bay Packers. The following week, he torched the Detroit Lions to the tune of six catches for 93 yards.
In New Orleans’ Week 5 win against the LA Chargers, the 5-foot-11, 180-pounder showed why the Saints gave him $10 million guaranteed. Sanders caught 12-of-14 targets for 122 yards. Last season, he surpassed 100 receiving yards just three times.
The Saints just suffered a brutal COVID-19 blow
Already down their best receiver, the Saints won’t have their second-leading pass-catcher available on Sunday. On Friday, Payton announced that Emmanuel Sanders tested positive for COVID-19 and will be placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
According to the Saints head coach, Sanders experienced symptoms of the virus and tested positive on Thursday. The veteran receiver practiced Wednesday and Thursday, but by landing on the reserve/COVID-19 list, he won’t play against the Panthers.
Payton did say that the team conducted contact tracing on “about 20 more people” and all tests came back negative.
Still, Sanders’ absence creates an unexpected challenge for a Saints offense that also won’t have Thomas available due to a recent hamstring injury.
Sanders’ absence could lead to a tough day against the Panthers
The Saints will have to find a way to beat the Panthers without both Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Can Drew Brees still lead New Orleans to a victory against a Carolina team featuring Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback?
Given their personnel issues at receiver, the Saints may elect to go with a more ground-and-pound approach. Kamara (61 carries for 281 yards) and Latavius Murray (52 carries for 218 yards) form a talented running back tandem that’s capable of carrying the load on Sunday.
The Saints feature a strong offensive line that can take advantage of a Panthers defense that just lost Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short to a season-ending injury. Look for New Orleans to assert its will early on, which will open up play-action opportunities for tight end Jared Cook and third-year pro Tre’Quan Smith.
On the other hand, the Panthers could stack the box and force Brees to try and beat them through the air. If Carolina succeeds in stopping the run, New Orleans will have a tough time putting up points without Thomas and Sanders.
Once again, COVID-19 will play a major factor in the outcome of an NFL game. Let’s see if the Saints can overcome the loss of Emmanuel Sanders and move to 4-2.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.