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.
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,
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.
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.
Jenkins, the team's first-round pick in 2009, is going to be asked to fill the sizable shoes of All-Pro free safety
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.
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.
Atlanta in 2008 found the perfect back to pound away with in its ball-control, power-running offensive scheme, and
With maturing quarterback
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
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.
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
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
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
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
When weakside linebacker
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.
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
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.
Plenty of choices in this category for
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.
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.
There's at least hope this season in Tampa Bay, because young players like quarterback