This week, SI.com is rolling out previews for all eight NFL divisions. Today, we tackle the NFC South and AFC South, following up Tuesday's breakdowns of the AFC East and NFC East. The AFC North and NFC North follow Thursday and the AFC West and NFC West conclude things Friday.
In the eight-division NFL, the NFC South stands alone as a remarkable testament to the model of parity the league strives so diligently to achieve. Everyone truly has a chance to win every year in the NFC South, where for seven years in a row the last-place team from the year before has made the playoffs the following season, and there has not been a single repeat playoff qualifier yet in the eight-year history of the division (2002-2009).
Those trends can't possibly go on forever, and it would seem the defending Super Bowl champion Saints are as good a candidate as anyone to bring some sense of continuity to the NFC South. After all, New Orleans posted the league's largest gap (147 points, or more than nine per game) between a division's highest-scoring team and its second-highest scoring team last season, and it's unlikely to expect that kind of superiority to just vanish. But we've probably made similar assumptions before when it comes to the NFC South, and been proven wrong.
What the Saints do best: Pile up the passing yards.
New Orleans tied Indianapolis and Minnesota with a league-best 34 touchdown passes last season, and its 69.5 completion percentage dwarfed the league average (60.9). In other words, Drew Brees and Co. can really throw the football, and that's why last year's Saints became just the fifth team of the NFL decade to crack the 500-point barrier in a season (510).
And New Orleans spreads the love around on offense. All told, 10 Saints caught touchdown passes from Brees, and 21 Saints scored six points or more. In case you've forgotten, New Orleans scored at least 45 points in four of its first six games, and averaged almost 36 points per game during the course of its 13-0 start. This is a well-balanced attack (passing ranked fourth overall, rushing sixth) that can pick apart even the best defenses with precision.
What the Saints need to improve: Consistency on defense.
The New Orleans defense feasted on turnovers last season, totaling 39 takeaways (second in the league) and posting the NFL's third-most interceptions (26). They returned five of those picks for touchdowns, which led the league. But rarely does a team repeat that kind of performance in the turnover department, and it's tough to count on the bounce of the ball going the Saints way to that degree in consecutive seasons. That's why New Orleans should be most concerned about a 26th-ranked pass defense that was the statistical weak link on last year's championship club.
Granted, the Saints did very well in keeping teams out of the end zone through the air (only 15 touchdown passes allowed). But they still surrendered 235.6 yards per game via the pass, with only three NFC teams giving up more, and allowed a worrisome 6.19 net yards per pass play, worst among all teams qualifying for the playoffs.
Which Saint needs to step up: Free safety Malcolm Jenkins.
Jenkins, the team's first-round pick in 2009, is going to be asked to fill the sizable shoes of All-Pro free safety Darren Sharper for at least part of the season and maybe the entire year. With Sharper slow to return from offseason microfracture knee surgery, the NFL's 2009 interception co-leader could start the year on the PUP list or conceivably even be released.
Jenkins is a collegiate cornerback who has made the transition to safety in the NFL. He has good size, ball instincts and athleticism, but lacks experience at playing centerfield in the Saints defense, where Sharper last season proved pivotal in picking off nine passes and returning three for touchdowns. Expecting Jenkins to flash the same big-play capability that Sharper did is probably unrealistic. New Orleans would probably settle for him keeping most everything in front of him, and making the plays he's supposed to make.
Predicted record: 11-5.
The Saints have never entered a season in their 43-year franchise history with a more prominent target on their backs, but that comes with the big confetti shower and ownership of the shiny trophy. We should know fairly quickly if any sign of contentment has slipped into the New Orleans locker room, because in the season's first five weeks the Saints will be challenged by two of their playoff opponents -- Minnesota and Arizona -- in addition to division rivals Atlanta and Carolina, and the improved 49ers. I don't see the Saints repeating their entire magic carpet ride of 2009, but they're too good to not become the NFC South's first repeat champion.
What the Falcons do best: Run to set up the pass.
Atlanta in 2008 found the perfect back to pound away with in its ball-control, power-running offensive scheme, and Michael Turner responded with a spectacular 1,699-yard rushing season and 17 touchdowns. But Turner the Burner blew a gasket last season, missing five games with a high ankle sprain and producing just 871 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns. He's healthy again, has shed a little excess weight, and looks as fast as he did while carrying the Falcons to a surprise playoff berth two years ago.
With maturing quarterback Matt Ryan now entering his third NFL season, Turner won't have to shoulder quite the same load as he did in '08, when he got a whopping 376 rushes and still averaged 4.5 yards a pop. But he's still the engine that drives Atlanta's committed run-first offense, and if Turner is getting the job done, it'll put Ryan and his receivers in some enviable passing situations.
What the Falcons need to improve: Pressure the QB.
Atlanta finished 28th in pass defense last season, making it the easy culprit to point the finger at. But in the NFL, your pass defense usually has no shot unless your pass rush is working, and Atlanta's 28 sacks tied for 26th overall in 2009. That means the Falcons have to generate some increased heat some way, despite making no key addition to the pass rush this offseason.
The best hope is a return to form by defensive end John Abraham, who slipped from 16½ sacks in 2008 to a paltry 5½ last year. But Abraham is entering his 11th NFL season and might be in permanent decline. Kroy Biermann (five sacks) is a high-effort presence at end, and any pressure he provides is more than the disappointing Jamaal Anderson can be counted on to deliver. Another potential upgrade is a healthy Peria Jerry, the 2009 first-round defensive tackle who missed all but two games of his rookie year due to knee surgery.
Which Falcon needs to step up: Cornerback Dunta Robinson.
The Falcons paid big for the free agent, who the Texans were rather ambivalent about losing. In theory Robinson gives Atlanta a first-tier cover man who will significantly tighten up a pass defense that surrendered 55 gains of 20 or more yards last year, second-worst in the NFC. But Texans fans will tell you that Robinson rarely seemed to get his hands on the ball (seven interceptions in his most recent five seasons) and was burned way too often to deserve elite status.
The Falcons believe otherwise, of course, and think the big-play-making opportunities will be there for Robinson in their zone schemes. But Robinson hasn't played yet this preseason due to a hamstring injury and that's got to be making folks in Atlanta nervous, given that he was the team's centerpiece offseason acquisition. The sooner he returns and starts paying dividends in coverage, the better the back of Atlanta's defense will look.
Predicted record: 10-6.
Having finally rid themselves of that embarrassing streak of not posting consecutive winning seasons in the franchise's first 43 seasons, the Falcons are at least in position to again challenge for an NFC playoff berth. Matt Ryan remains an emerging star at quarterback, and look for him to make a sizable leap in his development after last year's half-step back. The key for Atlanta will be defensive improvement against the pass, and drawing Pittsburgh without Ben Roethlisberger and Arizona without Kurt Warner in the season's opening two weeks sure doesn't hurt.
What the Panthers do best: Split the run load.
Only the Jets and the Titans ran the ball more productively than Carolina last year, and you'll get little argument around the league in making the case that the Panthers have the NFL's finest backfield tandem in Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. The duo became the first in league history to both reach the 1,100-yard plateau in 2009, and at age 23 and 27, respectively, there's still plenty of ceiling room left for the well-matched pairing.
Stewart is bigger, stronger and runs with more power than Williams, but both can break tackles and know how to make themselves scarce in the open field. They're going to again be the backbone of this Carolina team, because with a quality offensive line, a thin receiving depth chart, and the relatively unproven Matt Moore installed as the Panthers starting quarterback, it only makes sense to keep running the ball in Charlotte.
What the Panthers need to improve: Passing game.
It's hard to take Carolina seriously as a playoff threat when the passing game can't find a way to threaten a defense vertically. Other than old reliable Steve Smith -- who simply has to give up his flag football career -- the Panthers have no receiver who remotely scares a defense. Third-round rookie Brandon LaFell has looked promising at times this summer and should factor into the lineup right away. But the Panthers may never make a player out of ex-USC receiver Dwayne Jarrett, and there's just no semblance of balance in the Carolina offense because of the lack of reliable pass-catchers.
Which Panther needs to step up: Linebacker Dan Connor.
When weakside linebacker Thomas Davis re-tore the ACL in his right knee in June, Carolina made the somewhat risky decision to move star middle linebacker Jon Beason to the weak side, inserting 2008 third-round pick Dan Connor into the middle. After two years of mostly watching and waiting, the ex-Penn State star's time has come. The question is, can he possibly come close to the play-making level of Beason, who roamed from sideline to sideline, finding the ballcarrier?
Connor has never started an NFL game, and appeared just 19 times in his first two seasons, mostly on special teams duty. He's a football junkie and the son of a coach, but this is a big step up in responsibility for a player who will now handle the team's defensive checks at the line, and be asked to show the speed and range required of the middle linebacker role. Carolina's defense has been sharp this preseason, but the real test will come when the Panthers open on the road at the Giants' noisy new stadium. Connor will be center stage for the Carolina defense, with any and all growing pains on full display.
Predicted record: 7-9.
The Panthers are a team forced to play in a state of flux this season, what with nine starters from last year's 8-8 club either released or not re-signed, and head coach John Fox in the unusual situation of working in the final season of his contract. There's some talent on defense and in the running game, but Carolina doesn't have enough depth or impact players to put together anything approaching a playoff run in 2010.
What the Bucs do best: Defend the pass.
Maybe it's because everybody loved running against Tampa Bay's 32nd-ranked run defense, but the Bucs pass defense actually finished a very respectable 10th overall last season, surrendering just 207.4 yards per game and intercepting 19 passes. The secondary is led by third-year cornerback Aqib Talib, whose play-making skills sparkle at times (a combined nine interceptions in his first two seasons). He's not the most consistent of cover men just yet, and he's suspended Week 1 for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, but Tampa Bay sees signs of improvement in his game and believes he's ready for the kind of season that will elevate him into the top tier of young NFL cornerbacks.
Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber is anything but young, and he's likely in his final season of a long and distinguished 14-year run with the Bucs. But he still provides valuable veteran leadership, albeit with a role that may decrease this season if rookie third-round pick Myron Lewis can play his way into more than the nickel back assignment.
What the Bucs need to improve: Let's start with run defense.
Plenty of choices in this category for Raheem Morris's young, rebuilding squad, but Tampa Bay's dead-last run defense was gashed for 158.2 yards per game last year, and that's why the Bucs spent their first two draft picks on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy of Oklahoma and UCLA's Brian Price. In an ideal scenario, McCoy boosts the interior pass rush while corralling ballcarriers left and right, and Price eats up blocks, allowing Tampa Bay's linebackers to flow to the ball.
In reality, the rush defense needs more help than just McCoy and Price can give it. The Bucs linebacking and safety play was dreadful at times last season, but the overall defensive performance did improve in the season's final six games, when Morris took over coordinating the unit. The hope is that McCoy and Price are building blocks up front, and everything gets a little more stable with a better foundation in place.
Which Buc needs to step up: Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud.
Ruud has led the Bucs in tackles for three years running, but Tampa Bay needs more from him this year and he knows it. Ruud made far too many of his 142 tackles too far downfield, his critics say, and some of those critics work on the Bucs coaching staff. He's in the final year of his contract, and Ruud must emerge as more of a difference-maker this season if he's to return to Tampa Bay.
The thinking goes that with McCoy and Price now on the job at defensive tackle, Ruud will be freed up to pursue the ball more and not have to fight off the blockers that former Bucs defensive tackles failed to neutralize. Ruud's a key component and one of the few experienced veterans in Tampa Bay's front seven, and if he's consistently in the middle of the action this season, the Bucs defense has a chance to take a major step forward.
Predicted record: 6-10.
There's at least hope this season in Tampa Bay, because young players like quarterback Josh Freeman, rookie receiver Mike Williams and the aforementioned McCoy and Price have the potential to lift a franchise that hit bottom during the midst of last year's 3-13 finish. But the Bucs' youth movement is far from finished, and we're still in the process of finding out if Morris, 33, and general manager Mark Dominik, 38, have a plan that will produce incremental progress.