— The NFC South got a whole lot tougher on draft weekend, and it had nothing to do with Cam Newton.
The NFC South was the best division in the NFL last year. The Falcons went 13-3. The Saints, who happened to be the defending champions, went 11-5. The Buccaneers went 10-6 and would have won weaker divisions like the NFC or AFC West. Those three teams finished 8th, 10th, and 12th in the league in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings. They were all excellent teams, but each had one glaring hole.
Those holes have been filled.
The Falcons traded up to acquire Julio Jones. They now have a No. 2 receiver to take pressure off Roddy White. The Saints selected former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. They now have the power running back who can keep their offense from becoming too cute. The Buccaneers drafted Adrian Clayborn in the first round and Da’Quan Bowers in the second. They now have two defensive ends to bolster a pass rush that produced just 26 sacks. The NFC South could produce three playoff teams next season, and both the Falcons and Saints will be among the early favorites to reach the Super Bowl.
Help for Roddy
White was the league's most targeted receiver last season: Falcons quarterbacks threw him 179 passes, accounting for 31 percent of the pass offense. White is a great receiver, but he got too much attention last season, particularly in “high leverage” situations. When Atlanta absolutely needed a completion, opponents knew where the ball was going, making the Falcons easy to defend at critical moments in the game.
Table 1 breaks down Falcons passes on third-and-long (more than five yards to go) by intended receiver. Third-and-long is a “high leverage” situation, of course, and I removed passes to running backs, so we don’t have to concern ourselves with dump-offs to Jason Snelling on third-and-15. White was the target for 36 percent of the Falcons’ downfield attempts on third-and-long. He accounted for nearly half of the team’s yards and conversions by receivers and tight ends on those plays.
For opponents, third-and-long strategy against the Falcons was simple: cover White by any means necessary, and dare the rest of them to beat you.
The Falcons’ White dependency was even more pronounced in another high leverage situation. Table 2 shows the team’s pass breakdown when trailing in the fourth quarter. Again, running backs are left out of the data so we can focus on downfield passes. White gets exactly half the attempts and accounts for more than 60 percent of the yardage in these high-pressure situations! If you are a defensive coordinator protecting a lead, you sure as heck are not going to double-cover Michael Jenkins or Harry Douglas.
Under the circumstances, it is amazing that White was so effective: he shook off a lot of extra coverage to catch those passes. Now that Julio Jones is in the lineup, Matt Ryan will have more targets, White will face less double coverage, and opponents will have much more to worry about. The Falcons will be able to keep pace offensively with teams like the Packers. Because the Falcons are already a 13-win season, a seemingly small improvement like that can go a long way.
Simplifying the Saints
Ingram does not appear to fit the Saints system. He’s not a great receiver or a nifty runner for draw plays. He’s an old-fashioned grinder, the kind who follows blocks and churns out yardage, the kind the Saints rarely used in recent years.
The Saints drafted Ingram because their offense needs a little less flash and a little more grind. Ingram will help them sit on leads and bang out first down rushing yards, two things their running back committee could not do in 2010.
The Saints passed 59.3 percent of the time on first-and-10 last year. They threw 254 first-and-10 passes, the league's highest total. Tellingly, those passes netted 1,564 yards, just the 10th highest average in the league. Yet all those first down passes yielded diminishing returns for the Saints. Opponents knew the short throws were coming, and the deadly play-action bomb (a staple of the Saints offense when they are balanced) became a dangerous proposition: Drew Brees threw seven interceptions and suffered eight sacks (fumbling twice) on what should have been “safe” passes.
At least the Saints averaged 4.6 yards per carry when they did run on first down. When nursing leads in the fourth quarter, the Saints rushing average dipped to 3.0 yards per carry. What’s more, the Saints rushed the ball just 62 times with the lead in the fourth quarter, and 12 of those runs came on 3rd-and-1 or at the goal line. That’s an amazingly low number of “nurse the clock” runs for a team that won 11 games. The Saints weren’t very good at running out leads, especially when their running backs started getting hurt. So they just kept passing.
The Saints offense needs to be multi-dimensional, and old-fashioned power running is the dimension that they lacked last season. Ingram brings that dimension back. Sean Payton, the guru of offensive complexity, will be able to simplify. Opponents must prepare for a Saints offense with brains and brawn.
Attack from All Angles:
Stylez G. White may have the coolest name in football, but he is not the kind of player you build a defense around. White recorded just five sacks in 16 games last season, and he was nothing special as a run defender: Football Outsiders credits him with just six defeats on running plays (stops for no gain or a loss, or tackles that prevent a third down conversion). White is a pretty good defensive end, but he was all the Buccaneers had as a pass rusher last year: he led a team that recorded just 26 sacks and allowed 2,107 yards last season.
The Buccaneers addressed those needs with extreme prejudice.
Clayborn (15 sacks in 2009-10) was a sound-if-unspectacular choice in the first round. Bowers (15.5 sacks in 2010) was an inspired follow-up in the second round. White, a free agent who received a tender offer before the lockout, can now come off the bench, with Clayborn attacking from the right and Bowers from the left. Both are effective run defenders, so the Bucs’ defensive line will not sacrifice anything while chasing quarterbacks.
Defensive ends are often only as good as the interior linemen who occupy blockers for them, but the Bucs are set at defensive tackle. Last year’s No. 1 pick, Gerald McCoy, was playing well before getting hurt. Fellow tackle Roy Miller is the unsung hero of the Buccaneers defense. Miller, who can bench press 500 pounds, made 44 tackles on running plays, 33 of them successes (tackles after minimal gains). He is the kind of stay-at-home defender who makes everyone around him more effective. A Clayborn-McCoy-Miller-Bowers defensive line is the perfect counter to the Falcons and Saints offenses: the Bucs will be able to pressure quarterbacks without blitzing and stop the run without bringing safeties up.
Best of all, all of the Bucs defensive line starters are under 23 years old, so they should be around for a long time. The NFC South isn’t just the best division in the NFL right now. These teams are building to stick around for a while.