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Thursday, 25 August 2011

Pulling Linemen Previews 2011: NFC South

Over the next few days, The Pulling Linemen will be telling you what to expect from every division around the league. First up is the only division in 2010 to have three teams with double-digit wins: the NFC South.

Previews: AFC East | NFC West

(NB: This is an edited down version of the piece. The ridiculously, ridiculously too long version can be found here)

NFC South 2011

  • Atlanta Falcons

2010 Record: 13-3
Finished: 1st
Playoffs: No. 1 seed, first round bye, lost in divisional round to the Green Bay Packers 48-21

Dominant Storyline for 2011: ‘The Draft-Day Trade’
The Falcons gave up
a lot for Julio Jones
The Falcons wanted one of the premier wide receivers in the draft class, feeling their offense lacked explosiveness; knowing that AJ Green and Julio Jones would likely both be drafted in the first ten picks, and with Atlanta slated to have the 27th pick, general manager Thomas Dimitroff pulled off a stunning trade with the Cleveland Browns, holders of the 6th overall pick. The Falcons traded to the Browns their first, second and fourth round picks in 2011, and their first and fourth round picks in the 2012 draft. Even if Jones lives up to his full potential, if any other area of the team falls short, the Falcons have given away opportunities to restock, and will get criticised heavily for it. You have to wonder, if free agency had begun in March as usual, and the Eagles had assembled their ‘dream team’ *cough* pre-draft, would the Falcons have attempted such a ballsy trade? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

  • The Air Game

Coming of his third consecutive winning season – in a franchise that had never posted two back-to-back seasons with a plus-.500 record – Matt Ryan has the trust and belief of his team. The Falcons’ passing game should only get better this year, with Julio Jones stretching the field, and taking the top of the coverage for 2010 reception-leader Roddy White and arguably the greatest tight end ever (and, according to us, sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer) Tony Gonzalez.
  • The Secret Weapon

Who is the most underrated cornerback in the NFL? Obviously, the answer is subjective, but for my money, the answer is Brent Grimes. According to the wonderful folk over at Football Outsiders, Grimes allowed the joint-3rd least amount of yards per pass play at 5.0 yards, despite being targeted over 100 times over the season. He’s also clutch: four of his five interceptions last year came in the second half; more importantly, four of his five interceptions came when the Falcons were behind, giving Matt Ryan a chance to come back.

  • Can the O-Line Keep It Up?

The Falcons lost Harvey Dahl, a very good guard, in free agency. The middle of the line could be a potential weakness this season: Todd McClure is a good centre, but is getting old; plugged in next to him, replacing Dahl is Garrett Reynolds. Never heard of him? Don’t feel too bad – in his career, he has appeared in four regular season games, starting none, all in 2009, his rookie season. Having been drafted by the Falcons. As a tackle. If McClure’s age starts to show, don’t expect Michael Turner to finish the season.
    Will Ray Edwards silence
    his critics as a Dirty Bird?
  • Proving the Pass-Rush

John Abraham had a beastly 2010 – 13 sacks, Pro Bowl, All-Pro – but in 2009, Abraham had just 5 and a half sacks, despite starting two more games than he did in last year. You’ve also got to take into consideration that Abraham is not a young guy – he’s 33, to be precise. On the other side of the line is former Viking Ray Edwards, signed by the Falcons in free agency. How good can Edwards be without Jared Allen or the ‘Williams Wall’ beside him? We’ll know by the end of the season. Both defensive ends had great and good seasons respectively last year – yet both still have something to prove.

Standout Player of the Year:
Brent Grimes. If the Falcons’ O-line is soft in the middle, they’ll need a playmaker on the other side of the ball to get back possession. Expect Grimes to rise to the challenge.

Disappointing Player of the Year:
Michael Turner. The Falcons’ game plan will rely on running early to draw safeties into the box and set up the play-action; if the O-line can’t protect him, Turner will not come close to repeating last year’s performance.

How’s the Schedule Looking?
The Falcons start out rough, facing four playoff teams in their first five weeks, including a prime time showdowns against reigning champions Green Bay – with the fifth game being an in-division game away at the Bucs, who finished with 10 wins last season and had two very fiercely contested, very close games with Atlanta. Things get easier towards the end of the season, with the team potentially seeing four rookie quarterbacks between weeks 11-15, but end the season with back-to-back division games that could well be the difference in securing a playoff spot, facing the Saints in the Superdome before hosting the Bucs in the final week of the season – don’t be surprised if this game gets flexed to primetime.
Predicted finish: 11-5

  • Carolina Panthers

2010 Record: 2-14
Finished: 4th

Dominant Storyline for 2011: ‘Can Cam Quarterback Carolina?’
With the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, the Panthers selected Cam Newton, coming off a ridiculous season which saw him winning the Heismann Trophy, the BCS National Championship with Auburn, and putting up FIFTY ONE TOUCHDOWNS – 30 through the air, 20 with his feet, and, just to take the piss, one receiving, too. And yet, I really did not like the pick. Newton, for all the he is undoubtedly a phenomenal athlete, is a raw prospect for an NFL QB. He needs time to learn the pro game, to look to his second read if his first is covered rather than instinctively running the ball, and to work on his accuracy inside the pocket. But the Panthers are 100% behind Cam, and the tale of the Panthers 2011 season will be the tale of Cam Newton.

  • The Most Underrated Line in Football?

As we’ve already discussed on The Pulling Linemen, the Panthers O-line is actually a damned good one, with some very nice pieces – namely former All-Pro tackle Jordan Gross, former first round pick Jeff Otah, and one of the best young centres in the game in Ryan Kalil, now the highest-paid centre in NFL history. The Carolina O-line in 2008 allowed for DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to become the first ever set of teammates to both rush for over 1300 yards in the same season; four of the starters in that season are still with the team (Gross, Otah, Kalil and guard Travelle Wharton). If the Panthers have one true strength this season – and they have only one – it lies in the offensive line.
Don't sleep on this line

  • Quarterback Conundrum

What else were you expecting? I can make this weakness pretty brief: Cam’s too raw for the NFL. Clausen’s too bad for the NFL. Former franchise QB Jake Delhomme is still out there on the open market. And who did the Panthers choose to sign as their ‘veteran’ QB backup? Derek Anderson. Derek Bloody Anderson. Derek ‘got benched twice for rookies last season’ Anderson. Derek ‘MNF press conference meltdown’ Anderson. Yeah, have fun with that Panthers fans.
  • Wideout Washout

The Panthers have one good wide receiver – a very old Steve Smith, who averaged under 40 yards a game last season, and didn’t catch a touchdown pass after week 2. The Panthers did pick up Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen in free agency, but you’d ideally not want to see Carolina running two-tight end sets every snap out of necessity. With no real receiving threat, and a rookie QB, defensive co-ordinators will be routinely putting eight in the box against the Panthers. This means one thing: Cam Newton will be find out very, very quickly why spread-style running QBs don’t have much success in the NFL. Pain-wise.

Standout Player of the Year:
Charles Johnson. For all that the Panthers offense was, well, atrocious, their defence was relatively decent, under the circumstances, being below the league average in yards conceded, and having the 11th best passing defence in the NFL. They had two real stars on defence –Jon Beason and Charles Johnson, who got himself 11.5 sacks. Johnson got a massive contract to stay with the Panthers, so he’ll be looking to prove he was worth the money.

Disappointing Player of the Year:
In case you didn’t guess by now, I’m picking Cam Newton. I think I’ve already expressed my reasons why sufficiently.
Will Cam be too raw for the NFL this year?

How’s the Schedule Looking?
Kicking off against the third-worst run defence in the NFL last season, the Panthers have a shot at starting the season 1-0. It’s a shame that a week 2 matchup with the Packers will bring them crashing back down to earth, hard. After that? Well, um, there’s the Redskins in week 8. Stafford could well be injured by the time the game against the Lions in week 11 rolls around, and the line is actually good enough to handle the Lions’ fearsome foursome up front, so you’ve got that going for you, which is nice. From week 12 on, however… Colts, Bucs, Falcons, Texans, Bucs again, Saints. Have fun with that.
Prediction: 2-14. Thanks for ruining the ‘never had a team finished last two years in a row’, Carolina.

  • New Orleans Saints

2010 Record: 11-5
Finished: 2nd
Playoffs: No. 5 seed, lost in wild-card round to the Seattle Seahawks 41-36

Dominant Storyline for 2011: ‘Can Championship Form Be Found?’
They've done it before - can they do it again?
The Saints were definitely not as good in 2010 as in 2009. Instead of remaining undefeated through the first 13 weeks of the season, they managed the first two. Drew Brees through twice as many interceptions as the previous year; his passer rating dropped almost 20 points. The defence went from 2nd in turnovers to 21st – from 29 interceptions to a league-worst 9. And, despite all this, the Saints finished the season 11-5, and were in contention for a first week bye right up until the final game of the regular season. The Saints still have most of the pieces of their championship-winning team in place. Most important of all, Sean Payton is still calling the plays, and Drew Brees is still throwing the ball. Now boasting a true no. 1 running back in rookie Mark Ingram, there really should be no excuse, short of injuries, for anything less than a deep playoff run.

  • Um, Elite QB Much?

Drew Brees. If I even need to explain it to you, you don’t care enough about football to even be reading this blog. Yes, I said his passer rating dropped almost 20 points last season from the one before. And it did. From 109.6 to 90.6. Enough said.
  • Williams Brings the Heat

Gregg Williams, the Saints’ defensive co-ordinator, loves him some blitz. The Saints picked up Cameron Jordan to bring some traditional DE pass-rush across the line from Will Smith, whilst the Saints went big-body hunting in free agency, picking up Shaun Rodgers and Aubrayo Franklin to clog up running lanes, and let Sedrick Ellis bring some of that inside-upfield pressure. Of course, Rodgers and Franklin have both played in 3-4 defences – so don’t be surprised if Williams throws in some three-man-line blitz packages. As long as the DBs do their job, Williams’s pressures and blitzes will mean no single-digit interception total this year.

  • Right Tackle

The Saints picked up a right tackle in free agency, let their incumbent starter go, then put the new acquisition on IR. It will be interesting to see what they do there.

Yeah, I don’t have much. I’m very high on the Saints this season. As a Bucs fan, I wish I wasn’t, but there you go. I am, sadly, expecting them to be pretty dominant this year.

Standout Player of the Year:
Big expectations on the rookie RB
Brees is too obvious, so I’m going to go with Mark Ingram – my preseason pick for the 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year. No defensive co-ordinator is going to dare bring eight men into the box against Drew Brees – and Ingram’s going to benefit hugely from that. Chris Ivory is currently on the PUP list; Pierre Thomas is coming off an injury; Darren Sproles is scat-back, he can run it between the tackles but you don’t want to do that too often. Ingram has the potential to be a true no. 1 back, and Sean Payton is going to find a way to utilise that at every opportunity. He’s also been receiving goal line carries in the preseason, so I think Ingram is in for a fantastic rookie season.

Disappointing Player of the Year:
How do you decide on a disappoint player of the year on a team which has no discernible weakness? Oh, what the hell. Drew Brees, because he won’t get his QB rating above 100, it’ll be somewhere in the high 90s instead.

How’s the Schedule Looking?
The Saints kick off the whole 2011 NFL Season against the Green Bay Packers, followed by an iffy Bears team (presumably, Cutler’s inactive for that game with a fractured corpus unguis – Google it), before taking on an improved, though not yet too worrying Houston Texans. The away game at the Rams could prove to be a classic ‘trap’ game, so that’s one to keep an eye on; the Saints follow that with a visit by the Bucs – don’t be surprised to see the Saints lose that one either, having lost both home games to the Bucs the last two seasons. Finally, in week 16 the Saints are at home to the Falcons, who will be in the thick of a playoff chase, a game that will definitely be a challenge. There should be no other games that the Saints are likely to lose.
Prediction: 13-3

  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2010 Record: 10-6
Finished: 3rd

Dominant Storyline of 2011: ‘Prove It.’
After a 3-13 season, no-one predicted the Bucs would finish better than 5-11 in 2010 – and that was one of the more optimistic predictions. Instead all they did was go 10-6, pulling off the best win-loss turnaround in franchise history. There is no question that the storyline for this the Bucs this year is to prove that they were not just the beneficiaries of a weak schedule, as many claim, but that they are for real – that they really were that damn good. And, having the youngest team in the league, they’re going to stay at that level for a long, long time.

  •           The New Triplets

If Blount doesn't run through
you, he'll jump over you
Almost all great offenses are powered by ‘triplets’; the Bucs have a set of their own in Josh Freeman, LeGarrette Blount and Mike Williams. Freeman put up ridiculous numbers: 25 TDs to only 6 INTs – over the last eight games, that was 15 TDs to just 1 pick (damn you Brent Grimes!). Freeman also trailed only Michael Vick in QB rushing yards last season. Despite having all of 30 yards over the first five games last year, LeGarrette Blount ended up trucking and hurdling his way to being only the second undrafted rookie to rush for over 1000 yards. Fellow rookie Mike Williams broke the all-time franchise record for receiving touchdowns whilst becoming the first rookie WR since Randy Moss in 1998 to have double digit TDs. It’s a very, very exciting time to be a Bucs fan.
  •           Rock Solid Secondary

The front seven was not good in the defence last year. I mean really not good. 28th in run defence; 30th in sacks; both areas that are primarily the responsibility of the D-line and the linebackers. And yet, the Bucs finished with the 7th best pass defence in the league. THAT, my friends, is a goddamn solid secondary. The Bucs defence might not be what it once was, but the secondary is still up there with the best the NFL has to offer.


  •                Run Over
Again, the front seven was not good last year. However, it should be a lot better this year, especially thanks to the very nice-looking defensive line the Bucs have been building, allowing the linebackers to do their thing and giving the secondary even more chances to prove their awesomeness. I believe the Bucs will be much improved this year, but they need to prove, on tape, that they can stop the run, something they’ve massively struggled to do over the past two years. For now, you’ve got to say the run defence is still a weakness.

  • -         Which Line Is It Anyway?
The two preseason games so far tell the tale of two very different offensive lines. There’s the one that gave Josh Freeman whole quarters to throw the ball (may be an exaggeration) against the Chiefs, and there’s the line that… didn’t give #5 quite as much time against New England. It’s too early to tell which line will be the one that shows up on actual game days. There’s no question there’s the potential for it to be the line that played in Kansas City, but whether they fulfil that potential, time will tell.

Standout Player of the Year:
#5. #5. #5. Josh Freechise. This team is squarely on the back of Freeman. Don’t get me wrong, there are some really, really nice pieces on this team, but like Jeff Bridges’ rug, it’s Freeman that ties the whole team together. I’m going to restrain myself from writing much more, because I could literally talk about Freeman for hours, so I’ll just say this: Josh Freeman is the sole reason the Bucs had the #20 pick in this year’s draft and not the #2 pick. And he'll be the reason the team picks at #32 very soon. Josh Freeman IS the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And that’s all there is to it.
The Freechise

Disappointing Player of the Year:
Aqib Talib. Despite the fact his trial isn’t due to begin until March, Roger Goodell is likely to hand a suspension down to Talib anyway (I don’t know why. Maybe his parents didn’t hug him enough as a child). Anyway, even if Talib is proven completely innocent of all charges, he’s had a history of misconduct that should have made him stay away from that situation in the first place. So, Talib is my disappointing player for this year – because before the season’s even started, he let his emotions take control, and is likely to miss time as a result.

How’s the Schedule Looking?
After a grudge match against the Lions and a trip to Minnesota should see the Bucs starting of 2-0, they will have hard game at home against the Falcons could very easily go either way. The week 4 MNF game against the Colts should be in the Bucs favour with Manning likely to be off-form, if playing at all. The Bucs play the Bears at Wembley Stadium, with games against the Saints either side of their cross-Atlantic trip. Five of the Bucs’ final 7 games are on the road; their final game of the season, against the Falcons, will probably be the deciding factor in who gets the fifth and who gets the sixth seed in the playoffs (yeh, that’s right, I said it. Three NFC South teams in the playoffs in 2011 – it would have happened last year but for a bad refereeing call) and should be one of the best games you will see next year, of any team.
Prediction: 11-5

- Gur Samuel (@FredThePuppy)
- The Pulling Linemen

Stats come from nfl.com. Thanks to fellow Pulling Lineman Toby for hosting the way-too-long version on his personal sports blog, http://tdonsport.blogspot.com.

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