- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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Defense wasn’t a strength in the NFC South in the 2011 season. In fact, it was a big problem for the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and only an occasional strength for the Atlanta Falcons.
But there were some solid individual performances. With that in mind, let’s roll out the All-NFC South defense.
Defensive end: Charles Johnson, Panthers. He got his huge contract in the summer, but didn’t take the money and disappear. Johnson came through with nine sacks and also played the run fairly well.
Defensive end: Adrian Clayborn, Buccaneers. Yes, I’m taking the rookie over Atlanta veteran John Abraham. I know Abraham ended up with 9.5 sacks, but 3.5 of them came against Jacksonville and rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Abraham was ordinary most of the season and was on the field for only 13 percent of Atlanta’s defensive snaps. Clayborn finished with 7.5 sacks. He also was on the field for about 80 percent of Tampa Bay’s defensive snaps, showed he can rush the passer and played the run well. Not much went right for the Bucs in the 2011 season. But they hit on their first-round draft pick.
Defensive tackle: Corey Peters, Falcons. He started in 2010, but was only a run-stuffer then. Peters emerged into a complete defensive tackle in his second season and showed signs he can generate a pass rush in the middle.
Defensive tackle: Brian Price, Buccaneers. Off the top of my head, I was preparing to go with Atlanta’s Jonathan Babineaux or New Orleans’ Sedrick Ellis. Then I looked at their statistics and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’m going with Price, who quietly put together a nice season. He finished with three sacks and was one of the few Bucs who played the run well. More importantly, Price made a nice comeback from surgery on his pelvis and played through the pain of an ankle injury for most of the second half of the season.
Linebacker: Sean Weatherspoon, Falcons. The second-year pro might now be the division’s best all-around linebacker. Weatherspoon is a playmaker and plays with an attitude that the rest of Atlanta’s defense needs to copy.
Cornerback: Jabari Greer, Saints. He often gets overlooked, but this guy is the best cover corner in the division.
Cornerback: Chris Gamble, Panthers. Gamble got benched by coach John Fox at the end of the 2010 season and his career appeared to be on the downside. But Gamble got a fresh start with coach Ron Rivera and bounced back with a strong season.
Safety: Malcolm Jenkins, Saints. He didn’t make as many big plays as I think he’s capable of, but Jenkins is an enormous talent. If the Saints can add a pass rush, the big plays will flow for Jenkins.
Safety: Thomas DeCoud, Falcons. He was benched briefly early in the season, but DeCoud seemed to get the message that he needed to play better. He finished the season with four interceptions and 86 tackles.