2011 Division Preview: NFC South
The Saints need more takeaways, better run defense to re-take the division
The Falcons are talented, but are blocked in the NFC by the Saints and Packers
Carolina is excited about Cam Newton, but his development will take time
SI.com is previewing all eight divisions throughout the week in anticipation of the 2011 season kicking off. (Send comments to email@example.com)
For the division that has been known as parity central over the years, the NFC South has experienced its share of excellence of late. In 2010, the division was the only one in the NFL to feature three teams with at least 10 wins, and no division had more than the NFC South's combined 36 victories (an average of nine per team). And that was with bottom-dwelling Carolina dragging things down with an NFL-worst 2-14 finish.
True, the division went 0-2 in the postseason, and the second-place Saints (11-5) failed to defend their Super Bowl title last year. But New Orleans did actually become the first team in the division's history to put together back-to-back playoff trips, with its combined 24-8 record standing as the best in the league over 2009-10, tied only by New England and Indianapolis. While the NFC South still has never had a repeat champion, the well-run Falcons have made it three consecutive winning seasons now after never managing even two in a row from 1966-2008.
Even third-place Tampa Bay has reason to brag. The Bucs (10-6) improved by an NFL-best seven games in their turnaround season of 2010, and narrowly missed making it eight straight times that a team finished last in the NFC South one year and made the playoffs the next season. But if you believe in the take-your-turn mojo of the NFC South, this might be the Bucs' year. Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina have won the past three division titles, making it Tampa Bay's time once again.
What the Saints do best: Throw the rock.
No team in the NFC had a bigger gap between the ranking of its passing game (No. 3 in the league) and running game (28th), so it's not tough to discern where the Saints' greatest strength lies. With quarterback Drew Brees leading the NFL in completion percentage for two years running, and a deep and versatile assortment of pass-catchers that includes receivers Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson and emerging tight end Jimmy Graham, defenses can only pick their poison when they try to slow down the Saints through the air.
Brees had to do too much at times last year due to the fall-off of the running game (just 94.9 yards per game, after 131.6 in 2009), and the result was his interception total doubling to a career-worst 22. But the savvy 10-year vet still threw for 33 touchdowns and 4,620 yards, with a mind-boggling 448 completions on 658 attempts (68.1 percent). Less would be more this year in New Orleans, with the expected boost that first-round running back Mark Ingram supplies to the rushing game.
What the Saints need to improve: Taking the ball away.
A year after the Saints defense rode its opportunistic, takeaway style of play all the way to a Super Bowl title, New Orleans lost the magic on that front last season. The Saints of 2009 were third in the league in interceptions with 26, but collected a paltry nine in 2010, ranking last in the NFL. Not surprisingly, the team's takeaway total shrunk from 39 to 25, with its turnover ratio basically flipping (plus-11 in 2009, third-best overall, to minus-6 in 2010, ranking 23rd). The short-field touchdown drives just didn't materialize last season like they did in '09.
The secondary is the strength of the defense, so the hope is the takeaways will return if the Saints can finally generate some pass pressure without relying almost exclusively on the blitz packages that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams loves to implement. New Orleans overhauled its front seven this offseason, picking up defensive end Cameron Jordan (first round) and outside linebacker Martez Wilson (third round) in the draft, and making run-stuffing veteran tackles Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers the key acquisitions up front. Improving the pass rush remains the priority, and the Saints believe their changes have made them better off in that department.
Which Saint needs to step up: Defensive end Cameron Jordan.
The surprising release of veteran defensive end Alex Brown this week fairly well spells out the writing on the wall: The Saints view Jordan as ready to immediately contribute. Though ex-Lions defensive end Turk McBride has had a strong preseason and might share time with Jordan early in the year at left end, the former Cal standout has improved throughout August and looks like he can be relied on. He might have to be, especially if starting right end Will Smith serves a league suspension in September for his role in the long-ago StarCaps investigation. Jordan's strength is his talent as a run defender, but he's a versatile player capable of shifting inside on passing downs and creating penetration from the interior.
Predicted record: 12-4
Though they play in a deep division that features opponents with talented quarterbacks and quality coaching, the Saints still look like the elite team in the NFC South to me. They appear in prime position to fashion just the second streak of three consecutive playoff trips in franchise history (1990-92), and possibly only Green Bay is more likely to wind up representing the NFC in the Super Bowl next February. Improvement by the defensive front seven is the key factor in how far the Saints will ride their impressive blend of talent, experience and depth.
What the Falcons do best: Convert on third down.
Atlanta has been known for its Michael Turner-led running game in the Mike Smith coaching era, but the numbers didn't really stand out in that regard in 2010. Yes, Turner produced a 1,371-yard rushing season, and there's nothing shabby about that. But the Falcons were only the 12th-best rushing team in the league (118.2 ypg), and while they ran the ball more than all but four teams in the NFL, their average rush of 3.8 yards was tied for third lowest.
But Atlanta was superb on third downs, be it via the pass or the run. The Falcons converted 46.7 percent of the time last season, a rate that was only topped by the powerful offenses in New Orleans (48.8) and New England (48.2). And that number could even improve this year, because the Falcons drafted Oregon State scat-back Jacquizz Rodgers in the fifth round, with the plan to make him their change-of-pace, third-down weapon out of the backfield.
What the Falcons need to improve: Get more explosive on offense.
There was no secret to what Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff set out to do in April's NFL draft. Going 13-3 and winning the NFC South in 2010 was great, but if Atlanta was to keep up with the Saints in their division and the Packers in the NFC, it had to acquire another big-time playmaker or two on offense. Thus the blockbuster trade to move up 21 spots in the first round for Alabama receiver Julio Jones, and the selection of the elusive Rodgers, who should create matchup problems for a defense.
Jones looks like the real deal and his arrival should mean opponents can no longer double-team Falcons receiver Roddy White -- the NFL's leading pass-catcher in 2010 with 115 -- all game long. The hope is that with more downfield weaponry for quarterback Matt Ryan to utilize, increased running lanes open up for Turner, and his per carry average creeps back closer to the 4.9 yards he posted in 2009 (as opposed to last year's 4.1).
Which Falcon needs to step up: Defensive end Ray Edwards.
Atlanta spent in free agency to acquire the ex-Viking, with the goal of finally finding someone to pressure the passer besides veteran defensive end John Abraham. The Falcons finished with just 31 sacks last season, tied for 20th in the NFL, and Abraham had 13 of those (nine more than any other Falcon). Edwards collected 16½ sacks over the past two seasons in Minnesota, and he's entering his prime as a sixth-year vet in 2011.
More pass rush should make the Atlanta defense better on third down (39.3 percent, in the bottom third of the league), and serve to jack up a Falcons pass defense that ranked just 22nd overall last year, allowing 226.6 yards per game. Atlanta is going to score its share of points with Ryan and Co. pulling the trigger, so the defense doesn't have to be suffocating. But complicating the task of opposing passers would make everyone's life as a Falcon so much easier.
Predicted record: 11-5
Since Dimitroff, Smith and Ryan got to town in 2008, the Falcons are a sterling 33-15 in the regular season, with three consecutive winning seasons (a franchise first) and a pair of playoff trips. All that's left now is erasing the stigma of their two one-and-done postseason showings and fully forcing their way into the ranks of the NFC elite. Atlanta has still never made back-to-back playoff trips, but that's a hurdle I see getting cleared this season. All those positives, and yet the Saints and Packers still seem to block the Falcons' path to Indianapolis.