Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFC South [Print without images]

Friday, March 27, 2009
NFC South looking to get grounded

By Pat Yasinskas
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

At the NFL owners' meeting a couple days ago, New Orleans coach Sean Payton ran down his list of needs in the upcoming draft. If you know anything about Payton or the Saints, his first priority might surprise you.

Payton's perfect pick wasn't another piece for a defense that's been rebuilding all offseason. And it sure wasn't another weapon for a passing game that helped Drew Brees throw for more than 5,000 yards last season.

"I'd have running back, a powerful runner, ahead of the other two,'' Payton said when asked how he'd rank draft needs at cornerback, wide receiver and running back.

 
  Kirby Lee/US Presswire
  Sean Payton wants a running back like Ohio State's Chris Wells to move the pile next year.
Yes, the man who made Deuce McAllister stand on the sidelines while the Saints threw the heck out of the ball all last season, now wants a power runner. Payton, who never has met a pass play he wouldn't call on third-and-inches, is calling a draw play right up the gut.

A change in style? Not really. The Saints still are going to pass a lot, but Payton has come to the realization he has to move the pile at times if he's going to have a chance in the NFC South.

What previously has been referred to as the "NASCAR Division” might have to change to the "Snow Plow Division.''

About the same time as Payton was saying Ohio State running back Chris "Beanie'' Wells is a possibility with the No. 14 pick in the draft, Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris was sitting a few tables away singing a similar song.

"If I walk around here going, "Oh God, look at the Saints,'' I'm in trouble already,'' Morris said. "It's about us becoming who we want to become, more physical, more violent, because the more violent team always wins. Ask (Super Bowl champion) Pittsburgh. We're in the best division in football -– who are we kidding?''

The best division in football? You might get some arguments there. But Morris and Payton are shooting to make the NFC South the toughest, most physical division in the league and that's why both coaches are making noise about the power-running game.

That's understandable because a simple look at last year's standings tells a pretty simple story. The Saints and Bucs weren't able to run the ball consistently. Neither made the playoffs. The Panthers and Falcons ran it like crazy. Both made the playoffs.

That's why two of Morris' first moves after taking over for Jon Gruden were hiring offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski and signing running back Derrick Ward. Jagodzinski's known as the kind of play caller who likes to pound away on the ground. Ward's the kind of big, physical runner that fits perfectly in his system.

The Bucs weren't exactly a finesse team under Gruden. They already had a very good offensive line and a solid runner in Earnest Graham. But,too many times last season, the running game wasn't there when the passing game struggled. That's part of the reason Gruden got fired.

That's part of the reason Payton, who usually doesn't telegraph personnel moves, said the Saints are in the market for a power runner even if it doesn't happen with Wells in the draft.

"If a player was available through the draft or here in June -- all of the sudden there's a veteran back that we think helps us and is going to get let go, we'd have an interest in that position,'' Payton said. "But the back would be a bigger back.''

That's because the Saints already have two smaller backs in Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. That's the tandem Payton stuck with most of last year, even though McAllister was available. But it's become pretty obvious Payton didn't think McAllister, who had two knee surgeries, was up to playing the way he did earlier in his career.

The Saints released McAllister after last season and they haven't replaced him. But Payton has laid some of the groundwork for more consistency in the running game with his other offseason moves. The Saints brought in fullback Heath Evans, who can block and handle some carries out of the backfield and they quietly have collected a group of blocking tight ends to go with Jeremy Shockey.

All that's missing is a power runner, but that will come. Morris got his power runner in Ward, but that's not the only move made to help the running game. The Bucs are taking the running game so seriously that they re-signed wide receiver Michael Clayton, largely a bust under Gruden, mainly because he's one of the best blocking receivers in the league.

By the time the Saints and Bucs take the field in September, they'll look a bit like Carolina and Atlanta did last year. But the Panthers and Falcons won't be much different.

Atlanta's found a formula that works -- pound away with Michael Turner, give a few carries to Jerious Norwood and let Matt Ryan take a shot downfield from time to time. That's basically what Carolina does with its "Double Trouble'' backfield of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, although the Panthers realize they have a deep threat in Steve Smith.

The Saints have a sure thing at quarterback with Brees and the Bucs don't even know if Luke McCown or somebody else will be their quarterback. But Payton and Morris are certain about this much -- they have to start looking more like the Panthers and Falcons if they want to get through the NFC South.