NFC South: Football Outsiders

As I said earlier, when the ESPN.com Power Rankings were released, I’m not really convinced the Atlanta Falcons are the best team in the NFL.

It’s not like I see anyone dramatically better and it’s hard to argue with putting the league’s only undefeated team at No. 1. But my opinion is based largely on what I’ve seen the Falcons the last three weeks. They’ve needed last-minute drives to win against bad teams.

But let’s take a look at this Insider post by Football Outsiders. I go by sense and feel, but the Football Outsiders go by hard numbers and they’re coming up with the same conclusion I am about the Falcons.

They point out several things that throw rain on Atlanta’s parade, starting with the fact the teams the Falcons have beaten are a combined 12-22 and none has a winning record. It also is pointed out that only two of Atlanta’s future opponents have winning records at the moment.

Football Outsiders also points out the shortcomings of Atlanta’s running game. It would be nice to have a running game, but I’m not sure this is all that big a deal. The Falcons came into the season wanting to be more of a passing team and they’re accomplishing that.

But, if you’re looking for a flaw that could really bring down the Falcons in the postseason, Football Outsiders has it. It points out how Denver’s Willis McGahee, Washington’s Alfred Morris and Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles and Carolina’s multi-faceted backfield all had an easy time running on the Falcons.

Think about the possibility of the Falcons having to stop Matt Forte, Frank Gore or Ahmad Bradshaw in a playoff game?

If they finally are going to win a postseason game in the Mike Smith era, the Falcons are going to have to improve at stopping the run.

They’ll get some relief soon when defensive tackle Corey Peters comes off the physically unable to perform list. Peters will help, but I’m not sure he solves everything.

If the Falcons really want to go far into the postseason, coordinator Mike Nolan better start finding ways to make the run defense better.
I just came across one of the most obscure, yet amazing, statistics I’ve ever seen.

While leafing through Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, I spotted an item that said Atlanta running back Michael Turner has a chance to make history. If Turner can rush for 638 yards before he catches four more passes (and I’m thinking he has a good chance), he will pass George Rogers as the most one-dimensional prominent running back NFL history. Turner is closing in on 7,000 career rushing yards, yet he has only 51 career catches. Rogers finished his career in 1987 with 7,176 rushing yards and 55 receptions. That currently is the lowest reception total for any running back with at least 7,000 career rushing yards.

It’s long been known that Turner isn’t much of a receiving threat out of the backfield. But he is coming off a season in which he recorded a career-high 17 receptions. I’d look for that number to drop significantly in 2012. The Falcons have been making noise about how they want to lighten Turner’s work load.

Turner still has plenty of value as a runner, so I’m guessing his total carries won’t fall that dramatically. I think the Falcons will look for other ways to keep him fresh. Early in Turner’s Atlanta days, the Falcons tried to break up his load by using Jerious Norwood as a receiver out of the backfield. The problem was Norwood never could stay healthy enough for that tandem to really work. The Falcons drafted Jacquizz Rodgers last season and he gained the confidence of the coaching staff as the season went on.

New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has pledged to make the screen pass a staple in Atlanta’s play book. That’s great news. But let’s take it one step further. The numbers say there’s no sense throwing screen passes to Turner. Rodgers is quicker and can make things happen when he catches passes. That could help assure Turner of his place in history.

Play book advice for Buccaneers

July, 18, 2012
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I’m pretty sure new Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano and his staff are going to run things a lot differently than predecessor Raheem Morris and his crew did.

It’s obvious Schiano is going about a lot of things in different ways, like putting the focus on details and organization. But, if there’s any temptation to borrow anything from the previous offensive playbook, Schiano and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan would be wise to make sure it’s not the end around or reverse to wide receiver Arrelious Benn.

Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 looked at what happened when Benn got the ball on reverses last year and the results weren’t pretty. In fact, they were down-right dismal.

Benn carried the ball six times on reverses last year. Only three of them went for positive yardage. The longest gain was nine yards. The other two gains went for three and two yards. Benn also carried for losses of four, five and 12 yards.

I’ll total it up here. Benn carried six times on reverses for a grand total of minus seven yards.
On Monday, Football Outsiders didn’t have a lot of flattering things to say about the New Orleans Saints’ young talent. Tuesday, Football Outsiders is singing the praises Insider of New Orleans defensive end Martez Wilson.

He’s ranked No. 2 on a list of 25 prospects that have yet to make their full impact. Those players have to have entered the league between 2009 and 2011 as no better than a third-round pick. They have to have fewer than five career starts. They also have to be on their original contract and can’t be over 26 years old in 2012.

Wilson meets all that criteria, but he’s on this list for another reason. He has enormous potential. He played linebacker in college and has a rookie, although only sparingly. He’s making the move to defensive end in 2012 and that’s what has FBO all fired up. They describe Wilson as a player with a Jevon Kearse-meets-Jason Pierre-Paul body type." That’s pretty impressive praise for a guy that’s barely played in the NFL. But the Saints, particularly defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, see it as well.

Spagnuolo needs to bolster his pass rush because defensive end Will Smith is the only proven pass rusher on the front four and he’s looking at a four-game suspension to open the season. If the Saints can make Wilson into a strong pass rusher, there defense suddenly will get a lot better.

The only other NFC South player to make the list is Atlanta middle linebacker Akeem Dent. I like this call a lot. Dent was one of the league’s best special-teams players last year when he was the backup middle linebacker behind Curtis Lofton, who left as a free agent to join the Saints. The Falcons brought in veteran Lofa Tatupu as insurance at middle linebacker. Tatupu once was a very good player, but he’s had injury problems and sat out last season. The Falcons will start Tatupu, if they have to. But I think the hope in Atlanta is that Dent uses training camp and the preseason to show he’s ready. If he can convince the coaches of that, Dent likely will end up as the starter.
When it comes to talent under 25, one report says that no team has less than the New Orleans Saints.

Check out this Insider report Insider by Football Outsiders. It has the Saints firmly at No. 32. It points to last year’s trade up for Mark Ingram and the picks that were forfeited in the bounty scandal as reasons why the Saints are low on young talent. I’m not ready to write off Ingram, whose rookie season was interrupted by injury, just yet and the forfeited draft picks were out of the Saints’ control. It’s important to know that tight end Jimmy Graham already has turned 25. If he were still under the age line, I think he would have been enough to keep the Saints out of last place.

The Atlanta Falcons didn’t fare much better. They’re No. 28 and Football Outsiders points to last year’s trade up to get Julio Jones as a reason why the Falcons are short on young talent. I get the point. But I’m thinking I’d rather have Jones, a potential superstar, than several other guys that might be nothing more than special-teams players.

I definitely think there’s some value in this exercise. You need to keep adding young talent to keep replenishing your talent from year to year. But what does it really mean to be ranked highly in this category? Last season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were No. 1. They ended up going 4-12. In 2010, the Houston Texans were No. 1 and they went 6-10.

That said, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that this year’s Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers rate high on this list.

The Bucs are No. 4 and they have plenty of young talent – rookies Mark Barron, Doug Martin and Lavonte David all should start right away. There still is a lot of hope for quarterback Josh Freeman, defensive end Adrian Clayborn and defensive end Gerald McCoy. If new coach Greg Schiano can get the young guys to play anywhere close to their potential, the Bucs will be competitive.

The Carolina Panthers came in at No. 8. No doubt quarterback Cam Newton carried a lot of weight in Carolina’s ranking. In fact, if I had to start a team with one NFC South player under 25, there’s no doubt I’d go with Newton.

Checking out NFC South needs

February, 16, 2012
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The NFC South is up in the latest installment of division-by-division top offseason needs by Football Outsiders.

Check out this Insider post by Mike Tanier, who elaborates on a lot of topics we’ve been talking about in recent weeks.

He discusses what Atlanta might do at left tackle, where Sam Baker could be on his way out. But the Falcons don’t have a first-round pick and the free-agent market isn’t likely to be loaded with elite left tackles.

Tanier also writes about how the Panthers need to improve their nickel package, but he also touches on another important point. The Carolina linebackers struggled in coverage against tight ends last season. That’s not a good thing when you play in a division with Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzalez and Kellen Winslow. The Panthers will get middle linebacker Jon Beason back from injury, but they might be wise to add a speedy outside linebacker.

For the Saints, the big area of need is the front four of the defense. Steve Spagnuolo has replaced Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator and he likes to rely on his front four to generate most of the pass rush. The issue there is the Saints are going to have to make some personnel moves up front because defensive end Will Smith is their only proven pass-rusher.

When it comes to Tampa Bay, Tanier is not impressed with how new coach Greg Schiano, who is known for being very organized, has handled his transition to the NFL so far.

How high can QB Cam Newton go?

December, 26, 2011
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We all know that Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton is having an outstanding rookie season.

Newton
Newton
But what does it mean going forward? In this Insider post, our friends at Football Outsiders use “similarity scores’’ to find historical matches for contemporary players. They compared Newton to some pretty outstanding quarterbacks during some pretty outstanding seasons (and we’re not just talking rookie years for the other guys).

Their conclusion? We’ve never seen anything like Newton before. They say that it’s fair to compare Newton to a young Peyton Manning as a quarterback and a young Herschel Walker as a running back. That’s pretty high praise.

I’ve been saying for a couple months now that Newton is different than anything we’ve seen. You can say he throws like a Manning, Dan Marino or John Elway. You can also say he runs like Michael Vick or Tim Tebow.

There have been quarterbacks before that you could say one of those two things about. But I think Newton is the first guy you can say both things about.

Recommended read: How to beat Saints

November, 1, 2011
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Check out this Insider post Insider by Football Outsiders Vince Verhei. It basically lays out a game plan for beating the New Orleans Saints.

You can see large portions of that plan by going back and looking at New Orleans’ loss to the St. Louis Rams on Sunday. The Rams sacked Drew Brees six times and took tight end Jimmy Graham out of the game for the most part.

Putting constant pressure on Brees and taking Graham out of the game are a lot easier said than done and not every team the Saints play the rest of this season will be able to accomplish those things. The Saints had a bad game and I’m pretty sure the offensive line, Brees and Graham all will bounce back.

But Verhei brings up something else that I think is a much bigger issue for the Saints. If they’re going to win the NFC South and make any kind of a run at the Super Bowl, the Saints have to improve their run defense dramatically.

The Saints are allowing 124.1 rushing yards per game. That’s 23rd in the league, but that’s even more troubling than it sounds. Since the Saints often have been ahead, opponents sometimes abandon the run. Opponents are averaging 22.7 runs per game against the Saints. That’s the sixth-lowest figure in the NFL.

The Saints are going to have to get by Tampa Bay and Atlanta to win the NFC South. The Bucs have LeGarrette Blount and the Falcons have Michael Turner. Those are two power runners and both have shown they can wear a defense down.

If the Saints can’t stop Blount on Sunday or Turner in their two remaining games with Atlanta, they could have some major problems.

Brees contract talks and more links

September, 13, 2011
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Some significant news out of New Orleans and some other items of interest from around the NFC South.

Mike Triplett reports that Drew Brees’ agent, Tom Condon, is in New Orleans to meet face to face with general manager Mickey Loomis about a contract extension for the quarterback. It previously has been reported the two sides aren’t close. But when you put a general manager and an agent in the same room, things can change quickly. Besides, this one doesn’t need to linger on for long. Everyone knows Brees’ value to the Saints and the team can’t afford to let him get to free agency.

In this Insider post, Football Outsiders takes an in-depth look at the Falcons and an offense that struggled in the season opener at Chicago and in last season’s playoff loss to Green Bay.

Charlie Campbell, who has spent a lot of time observing Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman on and off the field, writes that Freeman looked out of rhythm in the season opener and seemed frazzled when speaking to the media after the game.

Tampa Bay rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster said he expects to get better every week.

Carolina linebacker Jon Beason said that he didn’t return to the playing field too quickly. Beason had problems with his foot and ankle in the preseason before suffering a torn Achilles tendon in the season opener. Beason said he'd make the same decision to play if he had the chance to do it again.

Hitting the NFC South links

July, 28, 2011
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As we try to stay on top of the frenzy, let's take another run through the latest headlines around the NFC South.

Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy will miss at least the first two weeks of training camp after suffering injuries in a recent motorcycle accident in Tennessee. Don’t be surprised if there are more stories similar to this around the league as players report to training camp. Teams couldn’t have contact with players during the lockout, so it’s possible there are other unknown injuries out there.

Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman briefed offensive coordinator Greg Olson on what the team accomplished in players-only workouts while dining with a group of players and coaches. Also at the dinner were free-agent offensive linemen Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood, which would indicate the Bucs want to re-sign both.

Jeff Duncan writes that part of the reason Reggie Bush left New Orleans for Miami is because he wants to be “the man’’. Time will tell if Bush can handle that role after being a role player and often injured in New Orleans. Duncan also reports that Tampa Bay was in the mix in trade talks about Bush.

Although many assume the South Beach scene might be another reason Bush wanted to go to Miami, he told Lynn Hoppes that’s not the case. Bush said he’s not into partying.

In this Insider post, Football Outsiders ranks the Buccaneers as the league’s No. 1 organization. That’s based on talent that’s under 25. Freeman is 23, so that’s about 80 percent of the reason the Bucs are No. 1.

National Football League Players Association president Kevin Mawae said players are still fighting for amnesty for off-field incidents during the lockout. He said that’s one of the final pieces in play as the final edition of the new labor agreement is being worked out. Players don’t want to be subject to the league’s personal conduct policy during the time they were locked out. If they get their way, that could be good news for Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib, who was charged with aggravated assault in Texas in March.
If you attended a New Orleans Saints game or watched one on television last season, you probably remember hearing this more than a few times from a member of the officiating crew – “No. 64 has reported as an eligible receiver.’’

Strief

Strief


No. 64 is Zach Strief, a backup guard and tackle. The Saints used mostly Strief when they went to six-man lines last season and they did it more frequently than all but two NFL teams. The Saints used the six-man front on 105 plays, according to Football Outsiders. That’s 10 percent of all their plays.

Only the Giants (115) and Raiders (124) used six offensive linemen more than the Saints. You might just assume most of those plays were runs because that’s generally when teams use six offensive linemen. But that wasn’t really the case with the Saints. Of the plays on which they used six offensive linemen, 44 percent of them were pass plays. That’s a higher percentage than any team in the league that used the six-man front more than four times.

The Atlanta Falcons were No. 4 in the league with 78 plays where they used six-man fronts. But they only passed on 21 percent of those plays.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked No. 8 in the league with 23 plays with six offensive linemen. They passed on 22 percent of those plays.

The Carolina Panthers only used six offensive linemen on six plays and passed on two of those.
In this Insider postInsider, Football Outsiders takes a look at the 10 biggest oversights in NFL history. Basically, they’re looking at guys that started out with one team, didn’t do much of anything there and went on to greatness elsewhere.

Favre
Favre
Young
Young
Well, guess what? The No. 1 and No. 2 guys on the list come from teams that are now part of the NFC South.

Brett Favre came in at No. 1 and Steve Young is No. 2. Yep, I know it’s ancient history, but Favre and Young each spent a little time with teams now in the NFC South.

Favre was drafted by Atlanta and spent a year with the Falcons. It’s easy to look back and say the Falcons and then-coach Jerry Glanville made a huge mistake in trading away a guy who’s sure to be in the Hall of Fame. But that’s not really a fair way of looking at it. Fact is, Favre was wild in those days and has admitted he was out of control.

There are stories about the Falcons posting a security guard at his door so he wouldn’t sneak out the night before a game. There’s also the legendary story about Favre missing practice and telling Glanville it was because he was in a car accident.

Glanville’s response: "You are a car accident."

Favre put things together when he got Green Bay. But things were never going to work in Atlanta if Favre had stayed on the same path.

Saying the Bucs were flat-out wrong in giving up on Young after two ugly seasons isn’t right either. It just wasn’t the right place or the right time for Young to even have a chance. In the late 1980s, the Bucs were as dysfunctional a team as you’ll ever see. Young spent most Sunday’s running for his life because the Bucs couldn’t protect him.

They gave up on him and traded him to San Francisco, where he prospered after serving some time as Joe Montana’s backup. Tampa Bay turned around and drafted Vinny Testaverde as the franchise quarterback. Testaverde also had enormous talent, but could never get things going with the Bucs because there was so little talent.

Bucs best at breaking tackles

June, 15, 2011
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In terms of breaking tackles, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the best in the league last year and NFC South running backs fared very well in general in this category.

Broken tackles aren’t an official stat, but Football Outsiders charted every game last year and they define a broken tackle as an instance in which the ball carrier escapes from the grasp of a defender or fakes out a defender who is in good position to make a tackle.

Using those guidelines, Football Outsiders determined that the Bucs broke tackles on a league-high 8.1 percent of their offensive plays last season. The Panthers broke tackles on 6.5 percent of their plays. The Falcons were at 6.2 percent and the Saints at 6.1 percent.

A large chunk of Tampa Bay’s broken tackles came from running back LeGarrette Blount. He ranked third in the league by breaking tackles on 16 percent of his touches. New Orleans running back Chris Ivory led the league at 16.9 percent.

Blount and Ivory didn’t have as many carries as Atlanta’s Michael Turner and he finished tied for third in broken tackles by running backs with 38. Blount had 33 broken tackles and Ivory 27. Carolina’s Jonathan Stewart broke 25 tackles.

Remaining needs in NFC South

May, 11, 2011
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Football Outsiders has this Insider post on the top remaining needs for each NFC South team now that the draft is over.

They list defensive end as Atlanta’s biggest need and that one’s obvious. The Falcons got their explosive player on offense, taking receiver Julio Jones in the draft. They need a pass-rusher and depending on the rules of free agency, whenever it opens, guys like Ray Edwards and Charles Johnson could be possibilities. I’ve also heard Green Bay’s Cullen Jenkins tied to the Falcons a little bit. Jenkins has been a productive pass-rusher, but that’s not really his forte. He’s a big defensive end who can slide inside to defensive tackle in some situations.

Although the Panthers used to third-round picks on defensive tackles, defensive line is listed as one of their top needs. There’s even speculation that Ron Rivera’s ties to Chicago could lead him to pursue defensive tackle Tommie Harris.

New Orleans’ biggest need is listed as outside linebacker, even though the Saints drafted Martez Wilson in the third round. But Scott Shanle could become a free agent and Football Outsiders speculates that the Saints could pursue Buffalo’s Paul Posluszny, who could be a restricted free agent.

Tampa Bay’s biggest needs are listed as cornerback and defensive end. Although the Bucs just drafted Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers, they can use more defensive ends because they had virtually nothing at that position last season. There has been some speculation that the Bucs, who haven’t been big players in recent years, could make a splash and pursue Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency. Although I suspect Asomugha is headed for the NFC East, I’m not totally ruling this one out.

Speaking of ways to fill holes, Scouts Inc. has an Insider post on the top 40 undrafted free agents. Teams can’t sign these guys until the lockout is lifted, but you can bet that every team has a list of guys it is ready to contact the moment the doors to signing players open.
Football Outsiders has an Insider post saying that the lockout actually could help Green Bay’s chances of repeating as Super Bowl champions.

The article also mentions the Giants, Steelers, Seahawks and Patriots as other teams that could benefit from the lockout. I’m not going to dispute any of that. But, as I said in this post back at the start of the lockout, I think the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons belong on any list of teams that might benefit from a lengthy lockout.

Let’s start with the Saints. Yeah, they’ve got a long list of potential free agents, some who may be restricted and some who may be unrestricted. But you have to figure general manager Mickey Loomis has plans to keep most of the key guys. New Orleans also has a veteran coaching staff -- Sean Payton now is the dean of NFC South coaches -- that is largely intact. This is also a team with a lot of veteran players who know how to win.

But, more than anything, I think the Saints would be just fine if they miss most of the offseason and even part of training camp for one simple reason. Drew Brees could sleep, play golf and negotiate a new labor deal all summer and still roll out of bed on a Sunday in September and throw for 350 yards and four touchdowns.

The Falcons are pretty similar. They’re coming off a 13-3 season and Mike Smith, his coaching staff and system are now very entrenched. Atlanta has a nice mix of veterans and young players. And, most importantly, I think Matt Ryan could roll out of bed on a Sunday in September and throw for 275 yards and three touchdowns.

As I mentioned in the March article, I think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers have a lot more to lose in a lengthy lockout. They were the two-youngest teams in the league last year and both are committed to their youth movements. The Bucs were very much on the rise last season, but they still need some practice time together, although I do think Josh Freeman has the ability to cushion some of that blow.

The Panthers are in an even tougher spot. New coach Ron Rivera needs the offseason time to install his system and get familiar with his players. Let’s take it a step further and say the Panthers take Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the first overall pick in next week’s draft. And let’s say the lockout wipes out all of the offseason workouts and most of training camp. In that scenario, Newton won’t even be able to look at a Carolina playbook until the lockout ends.

Anybody think Jimmy Clausen can roll out of bed on a September morning and go out and throw for 75 yards and three interceptions?

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