NFC South: Muhammad Wilkerson

W2W4: Saints at Jets

November, 2, 2013
The New Orleans Saints (6-1) are back on the road, playing outdoors for the third time in four games, this time at the New York Jets (4-4). Here’s What 2 Watch 4:

A Ryan reversal? Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan knows this is his best chance yet to beat his brother Rex, the Jets’ head coach, after going 0-4 in previous head-to-head matchups in the NFL. To accomplish that goal, Rob will focus on making quarterback Geno Smith as uncomfortable as possible.

Smith has been up and down this year. He’s shown surprising poise in four fourth-quarter victories. But he also ranks second in the NFL with 16 turnovers (13 interceptions, three fumbles). One of Ryan’s specialties is mixing up schemes and formations and disguising blitzes and coverages to confuse opposing offenses. Expect a lot of that Sunday.

It will also help if the Saints can stop the Jets’ rushing attack to force Smith to throw on some third-and-longs.

“I think this is a real fine quarterback and a special talent,” Ryan said. “But obviously every week you’re going against some of these best quarterbacks in the world. So the more you can do to disguise things and give yourself an advantage, you try to do them.

“Much like last week (against the Buffalo Bills’ Thad Lewis), that was a good, young competitive quarterback, and this is the same type of guy. These are good young quarterbacks and they’ve earned the right to play.”

Rising stars: Sunday’s game will feature two of the best young defensive linemen in the NFL – Saints end Cameron Jordan and Jets end Muhammad Wilkerson, who are jockeying for position on All-Pro rosters right now. They both came from the same 2011 first-round draft class as the Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt – bringing in a wave of impact 3-4 ends into the league.

Jordan (6-4, 287) has been the Saints’ defensive MVP as a disruptive power rusher and solid run defender. He has six sacks and two forced fumbles. According to Pro Football Focus, he has five quarterback hits and 24 hurries.

Wilkerson (6-4, 215) has seven sacks, six hits and 14 hurries according to PFF. The entire Jets line has been outstanding this year, with rookie end Sheldon Richardson and tackle Damon Harrison playing extremely well against the run and the pass.

“It is a very good front,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “They are right at the top of the league in rush defense and the top of the league at rushes and sacks. They are athletic. They are big. So they present a handful of challenges, especially when you deal with crowd noise and you are playing a front like that on the road.”

Pass vs. fail? The Jets will be counting on that defensive front to put some pressure on Brees, because New York’s defense has not held up well against the pass this year. They just allowed five touchdowns to Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in a 49-9 loss last week. And according to PFF’s grading formula, rookie cornerback Dee Milliner and veteran Antonio Cromartie are ranked 106th and 108th, respectively, out of 109 qualifying cornerbacks in the NFL this year.

Brees has been playing at his usual elite level, with 2,290 passing yards, 19 touchdowns and five interceptions. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brees leads the NFL with eight touchdowns of 20-plus yards this season. No one else has more than five.
TAMPA, Fla. – Earlier on Thursday we told you about Muhammad Wilkerson saying he believes the New York Jets can rattle Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman.

If you’re looking for a war of words, that’s not happening. Freeman, who generally does his best to stay away from controversy, stayed true to his character when asked about Wilkerson’s comments Thursday afternoon.

"I'm no more motivated by the Jets saying something than someone in the media saying something," Freeman said. "[Motivation] comes from within. You have to hold it tight because you can’t let someone else saying something change the way you go about your business. Otherwise you are going to change and you are going to be off base."

Around the NFC South

April, 28, 2011
Time for a quick trip through the NFC South headlines.

Although there has been all sorts of speculation about Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers tumbling in the draft, he says his knee is just fine. He says reports about having arthritis or needing microfracture surgery are not accurate. Bowers says the surgery was simply to repair a torn meniscus. Still, he’s been falling in a lot of mock drafts, and if those are correct, Bowers could be available at No. 20 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Would they take the risk? I think they might. The last time a defensive lineman, who many initially thought would be the No. 1 overall pick was tumbling this fast, the Bucs took him. It was Warren Sapp. The reasons for Sapp’s fall were much different, but I think there’s a point where you have to take a shot on Bowers and No. 20 could be that point.

D. Orlando Ledbetter scratches defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Adrian Clayborn off Atlanta’s board and suggests five names the Falcons could be targeting at No. 27. I agree with all five names, but I’d also add Pittsburgh receiver Jonathan Baldwin. If the Falcons don’t trade up and still decide to go with a wide receiver at No. 27, it will be either Baldwin or Maryland’s Torrey Smith.

Michael Irvin says the Carolina Panthers need to surround Cam Newton with better players, if they do make the quarterback the No. 1 pick tonight, as is widely expected. I think there’s a misconception here that’s tied directly to Carolina’s 2-14 record last season. Coach John Fox and his feud with ownership and management had a lot to do with that record. This isn’t the typical roster of a 2-14 team. At least at the moment, Steve Smith is still on it. So are guys like DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Jeremy Shockey, a good offensive line and the Panthers like young receivers Brandon LaFell and David Gettis.

Mike Triplett lists the likely targets for the Saints. I agree totally with Muhammad Wilkerson, Cameron Heyward, Adrian Clayborn, Phil Taylor, Mark Ingram and Gabe Carimi. But I’d scratch UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers off the list. I’ve gotten some indications one thing the Saints won’t do is take an outside linebacker in the first round. Yes, they have a need. But that’s a spot they think they can address later in the draft or via free agency.

Now, let’s skip to two very positive items that aren’t related to the draft.

Tampa Bay offensive lineman Ted Larsen reportedly rescued three teens from dangerous waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

This one’s personal because Tom McEwen is the man who gave me my first job in this business. Tom’s the legendary former columnist and sports editor for The Tampa Tribune. He will be presented an honorary degree from Saint Leo University during graduation ceremonies Saturday. I’ve got a degree from Saint Leo that I’ve always been proud of. But I think the value of that degree gets multiplied by 100 once the man who largely built the sports world in Tampa Bay also has one. Congrats, Dr. McEwen. Wish I could be there to see it, but obviously the draft will have me occupied on Saturday.

NFC South mocking with McShay

April, 13, 2011
Todd McShay has his latest Insider mock draft and it includes some very interesting picks for the three NFC South teams that don’t have the No. 1 overall pick.

Like just about everyone else, McShay has the Carolina Panthers taking Auburn quarterback Cam Newton at No. 1. But let’s skip right past that because his picks for the other three NFC South teams are very unique.

McShay has Tampa Bay taking UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers at No. 20. That’s a break from conventional wisdom that the Bucs will go with a defensive end. I don’t think this one’s out of the question. The Bucs need a playmaker somewhere in the front seven, and taking a linebacker makes some sense if they’re not sold on the defensive ends. Ayers isn’t like Georgia’s Justin Houston, a guy who has experience at linebacker and defensive end. Ayers usually plays in the 250-pound range. He could be used as a pass-rusher from the linebacker spot, but he doesn’t have the size to move to defensive end and be an every-down player.

McShay has New Orleans taking Temple defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson at No. 24. Some people view him as a defensive end and some see him as a defensive tackle in the NFL. The Saints could use help at either spot and they don’t have to make an immediate decision on what position he’ll play for the long term. This is sort of like 2009, when the Saints used their first-round pick on Malcolm Jenkins. They used him as a cornerback as a rookie and moved him to free safety, where he blossomed last year.

At No. 27, McShay has the Atlanta Falcons going in a different direction than a lot of people are expecting. Most mock drafts have the Falcons taking a defensive end. But McShay has them taking Boston College offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo. Interesting. Left tackle Sam Baker, who was taken in the first round in 2008 to protect Matt Ryan’s blind side has struggled at times. There also is uncertainty elsewhere on the offensive line because the Falcons have some potential free agents. This pick might go against the norm, but it makes some sense.