Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Doug Martin all help to make up pro football’s most exciting division.
Driven by offense, the NFC South features two of pro football’s highest flying offenses in the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. So, for those who play fantasy football, this is the division to draft players from. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for its defenses.
On the bright side, though, each team has made adjustments toward improving. The next step is acting on that to compete with the rougher teams from the NFC North and NFC West.
The Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are more geared toward the running game. Cam Newton is a dual threat quarterback and the Panthers have explosive talent to move the ball. Tampa Bay features Doug Martin, but also a new island on defense in cornerback Darrelle Revis.
So, to continue our 2013 NFL season previews, let’s head South and install another division before Week 1 kicks off.
Attack, attack and attack. That has to remain Atlanta’s mentality offensively. Quarterback Matt Ryan is getting tight end Tony Gonzalez for one more year, not to mention the NFL’s best receiving duo of Roddy White and Julio Jones.
On the ground Steven Jackson comes aboard and the Falcons have the chance to establish more balance. Although they must remain a pass-first unit, Jackson’s presence will keep linebackers occupied to set up play-action. At the same time, he’ll be able to help with pass protection.
Speaking of blocking, Atlanta did lose Tyson Clabo and Todd McClure this offseason (Clabo in free agency, McClure retired). Therefore, the offensive line is a concern. At the same time, however, the aerial assault will keep an aggressive defense in check and an upgraded rushing threat should help keep opponents honest.
Atlanta’s defense was its Achilles heel throughout 2012. Ranking No. 21 against the rush and No. 23 against the pass, the Falcons survived by forcing turnovers and its explosive offense scoring consistently.
In 2013 the defense must improve at controlling the trenches otherwise the season will end in disappointing fashion. Not presenting much a pass rush last year, Osi Umenyiora has been added and should help to replace John Abraham this fall. The Dirty Birds will also need Jonathan Massaquoi to step up for front seven depth.
Elsewhere the Falcons are intact defensively. The linebacking corps (Akeem Dent, Stephen Nicholas, Sean Weatherspoon) remain, as well as Thomas DeCoud, William Moore and Asante Samuel in the secondary. The loss of Dunta Robinson won’t be felt badly, because rookie Desmond Trufant brings immense potential.
In a nutshell:
The Falcons must continue dicing up defenses with explosive offense and pound the ball with Jackson when needed. The defense must simply develop a more aggressive pass rush and continue generating turnovers.
Believe it or not, the Panthers have an intriguing offense for the 2013 campaign.
Cam Newton’s versatility remains a threat, as does the receiving corps of Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and tight end Greg Olsen. DeAngelo Williams is a legit No. 1 back, although we can’t exclude rookie Kenjon Barner from Oregon who adds a ton of athletic talent.
Ryan Kalil and the offensive line are reliable, and fullback Mike Tolbert helps with blocking and brings underrated skills out of the backfield. Last year Newton was sacked only 36 times (which isn’t horrible) and Carolina averaged 4.5 yards per rush.
In a division that is run by two major high-powered offenses (Atlanta, New Orleans), the Cats have an edge with a mobile signal-caller and an array of weapons around him.
Right now this is Luke Kuechly’s defense. As a rookie in 2012 he led pro football with 164 tackles, while also defending eight passes and recovering three fumbles. Obviously the guy makes plays everywhere, which certainly has an impact on the rest of the defense.
Charles Johnson and rookie Star Lotulelei are the two studs along the line to watch. Johnson had 12.5 sacks a year ago and forced seven fumbles. Lotulelei was a consistent player for Utah and has the short-area quickness to draw blocks and win one-on-one matchups. Don’t discount the efforts of Greg Hardy either, who logged 11 sacks in 2012.
The secondary also looks pretty strong. Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Norman combined for 17 defended passes last season, while Josh Thomas and safety Charles Godfrey combined for 13.
This defense has depth and playmakers at each level, the challenge will be slowing the explosive attacks that reside in the NFC.
In a nutshell:
The Panthers must learn to control the tempo offensively with strong balance and physical play. Ultimately, the defense then gets rest and is able to make stops when needed most.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
There is no quarterback in the NFL more important to his offense than Drew Brees is to New Orleans. Without Brees in 2012 the Saints would have been lucky to win three games. This offense’s production is based on Brees’ ability to read pre-snap and shred coverages.
On arguably the most pass-happy team in pro football, Brees’ ability to enhance any group of receivers is tough to match. Entering 2013 he has familiar faces in Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Jimmy Graham to lead the charge. Factor in second-year man Nick Toon and this aerial assault will be fine.
It also doesn’t really matter who’s on the offensive line, because Brees dissects everything so easily. What does need to improve is the ground game. Mark Ingram averaged 3.9 per carry last year and only amassed 602 rushing yards.
Obviously we’re not going to get much more from New Orleans’ on the ground. That said, a higher per-carry average will be required to keep opposing defenses in check. With Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles each above four yards per rush (Sproles at 5.1) those two need the ball more when a run is called.
You’ll be spared the atrocity that was the Saints defense in 2012. Just know that there’s nowhere else to go but up.
And the Saints do have reason for optimism on this side of the ball, because two defensive draft picks in Kenny Vaccaro and John Jenkins should help a great deal. Vaccaro, a safety, has the speed, acceleration and tackling ability to really contribute near the box and by rolling down in Cover 2. Jenkins has a massive frame to control two gaps and eat blocks for the linebackers. He should also provide plenty of pressure on the inside.
Jonathan Vilma remains the heart of the Big Easy’s defense, but he’s unfortunately set to be out out for roughly half the season as reported by Ian Rapoport of NFL.com:
Sources: The #Saints plan to place LB Jonathan Vilma (knee) on Injured Reserve designated to return
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) September 3, 2013
So, expect David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton to pick up the slack in the meantime.
Up front Cameron Jordan must lead the rushing attack, and he had eight sacks in 2012 which was more than 25 percent of the Saints’ sack total.
In a nutshell:
It would help the defense if Brees slowed the pace a bit, because New Orleans won’t flip that performance in one season. So, if the offense can keep its defense off the field and still score effectively, New Orleans will be contending for the postseason.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Tampa Bay is the only team in this division with a distinct offensive advantage: the running game. Atlanta and New Orleans are far more pass-oriented and Carolina gets more rushing production from Cam Newton. The Buccaneers on the other hand, have a second-year beast at running back in Doug Martin.
Coming off an incredible rookie campaign, Martin is the focus of Tampa’s offensive attack. His complete ability helps punish the trenches and move the chains, but also sets up a consistent play-action for balance. As a result, Josh Freeman can target deep threat Vincent Jackson downfield.
The receiving corps, though, is the offense’s only true weakness. After Jackson, Freeman’s arsenal consists of Mike Williams, Kevin Olgetree and Luke Stocker. Although Williams scored a team-leading nine touchdowns in 2012, he caught fewer than 50 percent of his targets (63 of 127).
While it seems unlikely that LG Carl Nicks will play Sunday, Schiano insisted he has not been ruled out. Nicks hasn’t practiced since Aug. 15, just before he was diagnosed with MRSA, a serious staph infection, on his left foot. He wasn’t out there Wednesday.
Regardless, expect Freeman to remain protected and lanes will be created for Martin.
Tampa Bay had to address its secondary for any shot at reaching the playoffs. Ranking dead last in pass defense, the Buccaneers acquired Darrelle Revis and brought in safety Dashon Goldson this offseason. Wow, that’s how you address a need.
Already fielding a front seven that allowed just 3.5 yards per rushing attempt in 2012, the Bucs now have a secondary capable of locking down opponents in man coverage. The end result will let linebackers play more freely and the rushers more time to apply pressure.
After recording just 27 sacks last year, Tampa did lose Michael Bennett, who had nine sacks, to Seattle. As a result, the Bucs will have to play plenty of Cover 1 press and blitz unexpectedly to gain control up front. Another secondary addition in rookie Johnthan Banks gives the team more depth to get physical, which in turn, will allow the linebackers more room for error when rushing or sinking into coverage at the intermediate level.
In a nutshell:
The Bucs can’t let off the gas with Martin. The more carries he gets, the better as he’ll run through weak defenses and keep Tampa winning the possession battle. Defensively, Tampa must let Revis isolate half the field to increase time for the pass rush.
There were a lot of personnel moves during the offseason in the NFC South. What won’t change, though, are the results.
Atlanta remains the standard, courtesy of the best receiving corps, an improved running back position and addressing its defense. And key to defeating them will be keeping Matt Ryan and co. off the field. In this division, only Tampa Bay provides that threat courtesy of Doug Martin.
The Buccaneers don’t offer the passing attack to match a high pace and score every possession. The slower pace is to their favor, as is balanced execution. Unless its defense manages to get more pressure, Tampa won’t contest for the division regardless of its pass coverage.
As for the Saints and Panthers, their problems are different, but will continue holding them a few steps back. New Orleans’ defense won’t be fixed in one season and it must develop a more effective ground game. Carolina has the offensive weaponry to produce, but Newton still has to develop more as a passer. Include a defense that failed to force turnovers and the Panthers have a steep, uphill climb.
1. Atlanta Falcons
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
3. New Orleans Saints
4. Carolina Panthers
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