NFC South: Steve Spagnuolo

METAIRIE, La. -- The first thing I noticed when watching the New Orleans Saints practice was the silence.

There was no messing around and no coaches screaming at players. Instead, the Saints looked like a veteran team that is intensely focused -- more focused than last year, when chaos surrounded the entire season. Maybe even more focused than in 2009, when the Saints eventually won their first Super Bowl championship.

The quiet practices are a firm sign that coach Sean Payton is back in charge and that this team wants to put last season as far in the past as possible. The bounty scandal that led to the season-long suspension of Payton and a disappointing 7-9 record is over, and the Saints want to return to their winning ways.

“Last year was an apparition," quarterback Drew Brees said. “It was a different time with all the situations that had taken place. This year, just knowing that we’ve got everybody here, this is our team. Nobody’s missing. This is the team that can accomplish great things, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Here’s our window of time to bring it together. We know there’s going to be tough times. We know there’s going to be adversity. Build that attitude, build that chemistry, and get ready to make a run at it.”

Payton’s return alone should make a big difference. He’s one of the league’s best coaches and possesses a brilliant offensive mind. After watching his team from a distance last year, Payton had some strong critiques for his players, even the superstars.

Soon after Payton was reinstated, he called tight end Jimmy Graham and told him that a season in which he caught 85 passes but led the league in drops, according to ESPN Stats & Information, wasn’t good enough.

“First, he called me and I didn’t recognize the number so I didn’t pick it up," Graham said. “He was pretty mad because it took like two or three days for me to call him back. The conversation was very serious, talking about his expectations for me and the things that I need to correct from last year and how he’s ready to be back. He’s ready to see my growth even more."

Payton needs to see growth from more than Graham. He’s made it clear that he wants to run the ball more often and that the Saints have to be substantially better on defense.

If the Saints can combine those things with Brees and the passing game, they should be right back in playoff contention.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. The defensive overhaul. Payton is an offensive guru, but the first order of business upon his reinstatement was to replace defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo with Rob Ryan. Spagnuolo’s defense never caught on in New Orleans, and the Saints finished last season ranked No. 32 in total defense.

The Saints aren’t just switching coordinators. They’re switching schemes. With Payton’s blessing, Ryan is installing a 3-4 scheme. The pass rush now will have to come from the outside linebackers, particularly Junior Galette, Will Smith and Martez Wilson, a trio of guys that previously played defensive end.

The secondary also is going through some major changes. The Saints signed free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round.

The defense will look a lot different because Ryan uses a lot of exotic looks. If the results are different from last season, the Saints will be in good shape.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThere won't be any excuses for Mark Ingram this season, as the Saints plan to keep him involved in their running game.
Ingram’s time? Payton repeatedly has said the Saints need to get back to running the ball more efficiently. They were good in that area in their Super Bowl season but got away from the run last season.

There really is no reason the Saints shouldn’t be able to get production from the running game. They have a good offensive line and three talented running backs -- Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.

The real wild card is Ingram. Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis used a first-round pick on Ingram in 2011, but he hasn’t produced a lot in his first two years. I think Payton is going to make it a point to give Ingram more carries this season.

A new age of receivers. A few years ago, the Saints had a receiving corps as deep as any in the league, which came in handy because they use so many three- and four-receiver sets. But Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson left over the past two seasons. Joe Morgan, who had been ticketed for the third receiver spot, suffered a season-ending injury in camp.

That leaves starters Marques Colston and Lance Moore as the only sure things. Beyond them, there’s a lot of uncertainty. But the Saints hope veteran Steve Breaston, who was signed this week, and second-year pro Nick Toon, who missed his rookie season with an injury, can fill the void.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Any team that has Brees as its quarterback is going to be competitive. With weapons such as Graham, Colston and Sproles, the Saints are going to score plenty of points. It would be difficult for the defense to be any worse than last season.

If the Saints can just put a middle-of-the-pack defense on the field, they can be a dangerous team.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Rob Ryan
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsRob Ryan will bring an aggressive new 3-4 attack to New Orleans, but do the Saints have the proper personnel to run it effectively off the bat?
The Saints already have had some tough breaks when it comes to injuries. Defensive end Kenyon Coleman and outside linebacker Victor Butler, who were brought in specifically to fill important roles in Ryan’s defensive scheme, already have suffered season-ending injuries.

Ryan is an aggressive coach, and the 3-4 has had plenty of success around the league in recent years. But I’m not sure Ryan has the personnel to make this defense succeed. It could take another offseason to get this defense fully stocked.

OBSERVATION DECK

One of the brightest spots in training camp has been the play of second-year defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. I saw him make several big plays during my visit. Hicks is going to get his chance to shine in the regular season, and with Coleman out, it looks like he'll be a starter at defensive end.

In another sign that the Saints are serious about running the ball more, Graham has bulked up. The tight end said he now weighs about 270 pounds and that he’s focusing on becoming a better blocker.

The Saints have a history of finding unheralded running backs who end up making a contribution (see Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet). They might have found another one in Khiry Robinson, an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A&M. Robinson has flashed big-play ability in camp. The Saints have so much depth at running back that it might be tough for him to make the roster, but he could end up on the practice squad.

There was some thought that Jason Smith, a former first-round pick by the St. Louis Rams, could end up as the starting left tackle. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Charles Brown has been getting virtually all the first-team work. Smith has fallen to third on the depth chart and is working behind rookie Terron Armstead. It’s looking like Smith might not even make the roster.

In recent years, the Saints have brought rookie defensive backs along slowly. Malcolm Jenkins and Patrick Robinson didn’t play significant roles in their first seasons. But I don’t think the Saints are going to be cautious with Vaccaro. Whether it’s at one of the safety spots or as the nickelback, Vaccaro is going to play a lot this season.
METAIRIE, La. -- He is boisterous, daring and, even though he won’t admit it, carrying a huge chip on his shoulder.

Maybe Rob Ryan, complete with his oversized personality, and the New Orleans Saints, an organization that’s carrying a chip of its own, are coming together at the perfect time. If Ryan can instill just a little of himself into the defense, it might be able to stop opponents on occasion -- and that might be enough to get the Saints back into the playoffs, maybe even back to something like the 2009 Super Bowl.

If this union sounds a little like something you’ve heard before, it’s only because you have.

Watch Ryan on the practice field or talk to him for five minutes and you feel almost like you’re watching or listening to Gregg Williams. Forget Bountygate for a minute and think back to when Williams arrived as the defensive coordinator in 2009.

All of a sudden, players were diving for loose balls in practice even after the whistle had blown. All of a sudden, the New Orleans defense had swagger and produced turnovers at a rapid rate. All of a sudden, the Saints had the only Super Bowl championship in franchise history.

That could happen again. It was easy to see an aggressive attitude from the defense as I watched minicamp practices the past couple of days. You could see innovation with the defense sometimes lining up with six defensive backs and no down linemen.

And you could see and hear the chip on the shoulder from the Saints and from Ryan.

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertNew defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, left, "makes the job fun," one Saints player said. "Everyone buys in."
The Saints have moved beyond Bountygate, but they’re still ticked off that they went 7-9 in 2012. The defense is particularly perturbed after ranking No. 32 last season and turning in one of the worst statistical performances in history.

Then, there’s Ryan’s chip.

"Anybody who has followed me, we were No. 3 in the league for 10 weeks of the season until every single player on the team was hurt and then I got fired," Ryan said. "We should have been No. 1. But that’s OK. I learned [from it]."

Ryan was talking about last season in Dallas, when he was let go as defensive coordinator. When asked if he had a chip on his shoulder because of it, Ryan said, "Not at all."

Yeah, right. Like Williams and a lot of other successful coaches, Ryan has a big ego. There’s nothing wrong with that. Ego can drive and push a coach and help him bring out the best in his players.

The Saints need to bring out the best in their defense. Everyone knows they have a great offense. Even a middle-of-the-pack defense could put them in Super Bowl contention. But Ryan isn’t shooting for the middle of the pack.

He wants an aggressive defense and he wants it to be one of the best in the league. He wants the defense to take on his personality.

"He doesn’t have to really instill it," middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "He just does it by being himself and saying the things he says, like, 'We’re going to be a great defense and you guys are great players.' As a player, that gives you confidence. When you’re a confident player and your coach believes in you, you want to make him right. That’s how he gets the aggressiveness part."

With Ryan, the Saints are switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 scheme. Much has been made of that, and there were plenty of exotic looks from the defense in minicamp, which should mean there will be even more exotic looks when the regular season gets here. That’s a welcome change from a defense that was bland -- and bad -- under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

Ryan’s doing all sorts of innovative things, like moving Will Smith, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson from defensive end to outside linebacker and putting safeties Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper and Kenny Vaccaro on the field at the same time.

But Ryan is doing more than installing a scheme. He’s trying to build a new culture on the defense.

"We’re in the attack business," Ryan said. "We say we’re in charge of discipline."

So far, there are plenty of signs the culture is changing.

"The thing I like about Ryan is he’s exactly what he preaches," defensive end Akiem Hicks said. "You have to appreciate that."

And what does Ryan preach?

"Hard work," Hicks said. "Hard work and he stays on you."

As last season went down the tubes, several players anonymously complained to the local media that Spagnuolo was unwilling to change and wouldn’t listen to input from players. It doesn’t sound like that will be a problem with Ryan.

"Rob makes the job fun," Lofton said. "He finds ways to lighten things up. He’s very aggressive. In his system, everyone’s going to get some burn, so everyone buys in."

The Saints have plenty of individual talent on defense, but the production hasn’t been very good since the Super Bowl season. But that will change if the defense continues to buy into Ryan.

His personality could give the defense a personality again. If that happens, the Saints could be champions again.

Around the NFC South

June, 3, 2013
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Let’s start the week off with a look at some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

General manager Thomas Dimitroff acknowledged that the Falcons are monitoring the situation of free-agent defensive tackle Richard Seymour. The reality is that the Falcons are interested and Seymour is interested, but the team isn’t going to pay big money to an aging defensive lineman. It doesn’t sound as if there are many teams making strong runs at Seymour. I’m thinking the Falcons gladly will sign him if his asking price is reasonable. Seymour still has a little left in the tank and the Falcons could use a little more explosiveness in the middle of their defensive line.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Scott Fowler writes that left tackle Jordan Gross, whose contract is scheduled to void after this season, will leave a lasting legacy on the Panthers. There’s no doubt about that. He’s been a good player and person ever since he arrived in Charlotte in 2003. This indeed could be Gross’ last season with the Panthers. But I wouldn’t be shocked if the team finds a way to re-sign him if he turns in another solid season. It’s not easy to go out and find a left tackle as dependable as Gross.

A first-round pick by Miami in 2007, Ted Ginn Jr. has been a factor as a return man, but hasn’t done much as a receiver. The Panthers will give him a shot at the No. 3 receiver spot. Ginn has elite speed and maybe he’ll prosper with a new team. At very least, he should upgrade the return game.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Although he was singing the praises of new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, inside linebacker Curtis Lofton said last year’s struggles can’t all be blamed on coaching. That’s an excellent point. Previous coordinator Steve Spagnuolo obviously didn’t work out and some of that falls on him, but the defenders need to play better for this defense to turn things around.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Coach Greg Schiano said it’s critical for him and the staff to take care of running back Doug Martin, who had 368 touches last year. Martin is a solid all-around back and he’s young. But Schiano and the Bucs might be wise to cut his number of touches just a little bit to help ensure a long career.

Kudos to general manager Mark Dominik who will take part in a unique fundraiser to benefit the Pediatric Cancer Foundation.
It’s trendy and fun to debate which NFC South team has the best offense.

Is it Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints or Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons? Heck, you can even look at all the offensive talent Carolina and Tampa Bay have and throw the Panthers and Buccaneers into the conversation.

But trendy and fun will only get you so far. Even in this day and age, you still must play defense once in a while. Especially if you’re a team in the NFC South. The division teams must face each other twice, as well as Seattle’s Russell Wilson, New England’s Tom Brady and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick this season.

Maybe the more practical and important debate is: Which team has the best defense in the NFC South? No defense in the division was great last season. To win the division -- or do much of anything else -- this season, some NFC South defense must at least be halfway decent.

So which defense is the best?

I’m not going to even venture a guess right now because there are too many variables that must play out. I can see reasons why any of the four defenses could be the division’s best. I also can see reasons why each couldn’t.

Let’s take a look at the ceiling and the floor for each of the NFC South defenses:

ATLANTA FALCONS

[+] EnlargeUmenyiora-Rodgers
Brad Penner/US PresswireAtlanta will be counting on former Giants star Osi Umenyiora to help upgrade the team's pass rush.
Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: Coordinator Mike Nolan is one of the game’s better defensive minds. His defensive system might really take hold in Atlanta in his second season. Outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is a budding star and is the centerpiece. The Falcons got a little younger at defensive end by replacing John Abraham with Osi Umenyiora.

Nolan might get a little more creative and use some more 3-4 looks. He also might be able to get more aggressive because he has fresh legs at cornerback after the Falcons drafted Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. William Moore and Thomas DeCoud are emerging as one of the league’s best safety tandems. There’s enough talent for this defense to be very good.

Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: The Falcons were No. 24 in total defense (No. 21 against the run and No. 23 against the pass) last season. Umenyiora is on the downside of his career, too, and it’s not as if the Falcons have a lot of other proven pass-rushers.

The young cornerbacks could take some lumps early on. Problems covering the tight end were exposed in the playoffs last season, and the rest of the league got to watch.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: In terms of pure talent, I think Carolina has the best front seven in the division. The arrival of rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei could put the Panthers over the top. Lotulelei is the kind of wide body who’s going to make everyone around him better.

Lotulelei is going to keep blockers off linebackers Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. He also is going to take blocking away from defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, who already were pretty good at getting after the quarterback.

Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: As much as I can see the front seven being very good, I can see the secondary being very bad. Veteran cornerback Chris Gamble is gone, and I don’t see anything close to a true No. 1 cornerback on this roster. The picture isn’t much brighter at safety.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: New coordinator Rob Ryan is going to bring swagger and an aggressive attitude. That can only help a unit that ranked No. 32 in total defense last year.

More importantly, Ryan is going to bring a 3-4 scheme. That’s the defensive system that seems to be having leaguewide success these days. The Saints have some good individual talent on defense with players such as end Cameron Jordan and inside linebacker Curtis Lofton, and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro should make an immediate impact.

Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: The defense was a mess under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo last season, and I’m not sure simply changing schemes will solve everything. Outside of Vaccaro and cornerback Keenan Lewis, it’s not as if the Saints have added a lot of big-time talent this offseason.

It could take more than one season for Ryan’s defense to really turn the corner.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: On paper, I think Tampa Bay might have more talent than any other defense in the division. After ranking No. 32 against the pass last season, the Bucs went out and got cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Johnthan Banks and safety Dashon Goldson. Linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy already are very good.

If young defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers can step up, this could be a solid defense in all areas.

Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: It seems as if the Bucs are pinning a lot of their hopes on Clayborn and Bowers. Both have already dealt with injuries and are not that experienced.

If the pass rush isn’t effective, all those upgrades in the secondary might not matter very much.

Around the NFC South

May, 5, 2013
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Time for a look at the Sunday morning headlines from around the NFC South:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Brian Banks opened rookie minicamp working at middle linebacker. Banks was signed by the Falcons in April. He spent more than five years in prison before being exonerated. Banks will be trying to earn a backup spot behind Akeem Dent. Playing on special teams also could help his chances of making the roster.

Daniel Cox has a feature on the hands of rookie defensive end Malliciah Goodman. That may seem a little unusual, but Goodman has unusually large hands. That could give him an advantage against offensive linemen. Goodman also has long arms, which could help him bat down some passes.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The Panthers may not have any superstars at cornerback, but Joseph Person points out that Drayton Florence brings plenty of experience. Florence said he’s ready to fill whatever role is asked and will be happy to help tutor young corners Josh Norman and Josh Thomas.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Steve Spagnuolo, who was fired as defensive coordinator after one season with the Saints, has been hired by Baltimore as a senior defensive assistant. Despite what happened in New Orleans last year, Spagnuolo still is a good coach. New Orleans was just the wrong place at the wrong time for him. The defensive side of the ball didn’t have a lot of talent and the Saints were going through a lot of turmoil with coach Sean Payton serving a suspension.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

After letting Roy Miller go in free agency, the Bucs are hoping rookie Akeem Spence can become their starting nose tackle.

In this radio interview, general manager Mark Dominik said he fully expects cornerback Darrelle Revis to be ready for the start of the regular season. Revis is coming off a major knee injury. The team's medical staff did its homework on Revis and is confident his knee won't be a problem.
Sean Payton John David Mercer/US PresswireSean Payton knows things won't be easy as he resumes head coaching duties.
Those who sat with and listened to Sean Payton speak to the media at the NFL owners meetings in Arizona on Wednesday said the coach of the New Orleans Saints had a new look and a new sound.

They said he appeared more fit (probably a result of a fitness program that culminated with his running a half-marathon) and younger than he has looked in years. They said he looked relaxed and -- in the biggest news flash of all -- sounded almost humble at times.

"It's almost like Year 1," Payton said.

In some ways, it is Year 1 all over again. Payton is back from a season-long suspension stemming from the bounty scandal. It's a good thing he's fit and refreshed because he's facing a challenge almost as big as the one he so successfully took on when he first became the coach of the Saints in 2006.

Back then, the franchise, the city of New Orleans and the entire Gulf region were dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A young hotshot who had made his name as an assistant with the Cowboys and Giants, Payton energized the Saints, and the team became a rallying point for the entire region.

You know the story of the electric return to the Superdome against the Atlanta Falcons. You know the story of how the Saints made it to the NFC Championship Game in Payton's first season and how they won the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history in his fourth year.

In the process, a die-hard fan base that had endured decades of disappointment came to expect big success on a regular basis.

Then along came the bounty scandal, and the Saints traveled back in time. They went back to mediocrity in 2012 and went 7-9 while putting a historically bad defense on the field.

"We found a way to get to 7-9 and that's where we are right now," Payton said. "Until we get a lot of that corrected, we've got a lot of work to do."

Although he's known around the league for his confidence (some would say arrogance), Payton wasn't beating his chest. He pulled off a miracle in New Orleans once and he knows an encore isn't going to be easy.

"What's dangerous is [saying], 'He's back and they're right back to being the old Saints,'" Payton said. "That’s a dangerous mindset to have. It's not real. We could turn around and win five games if we don't correct some things."

That's a very healthy and smart attitude to have because the Saints aren't the same team he was forced to walk away from just over a year ago. Things didn't work out well for Steve Spagnuolo, the defensive coordinator Payton hand-picked to replace Gregg Williams.

The Saints allowed more yards than any defense in NFL history.

"In fairness to Steve, we never got to coach together," Payton said. "It was a difficult and probably unfair situation for Steve."

Fair or not, Spagnuolo was fired after last season and has been replaced by Rob Ryan, who will switch the base defense from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 front. Ryan faces a monumental task. Not only is he taking over a defense that was horrible last season, but he has to find a way to make a new scheme work when the Saints don't have much salary-cap room to bring in guys who will fit in his system.

But there's more than just a defense to fix. Even quarterback Drew Brees had a subpar (by his standards) 2012 season.

"His two greatest allies are a good defense and a decent, good running game," Payton said. "The quarterback's job description is entirely different. He's having to press and do things that his counterpart doesn't have to do. You get one-dimensional where you're not controlling the game."

The Saints have to get back to controlling games, and Payton has to get back to controlling the Saints. As he watched his team from a distance last year, Payton said he felt like a parent who had left his child in the hands of a babysitter.

"When you're away from it and you come back and the swing set is empty and there's dirty diapers in the garbage can that normally would be taken away each day, you wonder, 'How did this happen?'" Payton said. "It's not one person's fault. It just happened."

And again, Payton would like to remind you that his mere presence isn't going to solve everything.

"I think the one thing we have to avoid is this perception that we'll be right back in the swing of things," Payton said.

It's true that Payton has to get used to a bunch of new players, and the coaching staff has had some turnover. Payton estimated that the Saints turn over 18 percent of the roster each year. He didn't get to know the new players from last season and he has to get to know the players that have been (and will be) added this year. That's nearly 40 percent of the roster.

"It's not been uncommon to walk the hallways and run into a player you haven't met yet," Payton said. "I'd equate that almost to a coach in the first year."

Maybe that's not such a bad spot to be in. Sure, there's a ton of work to be done. But the last time Payton was a first-year coach, he turned a franchise around.

I wouldn't bet against him doing it again.

Steve Spagnuolo out in New Orleans

January, 24, 2013
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It didn’t take New Orleans coach Sean Payton long to make a major move after he was reinstated from a season-long suspension earlier this week.

The team announced Thursday night that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has been fired. Secondary coach Ken Flajole also was relieved of his duties.

“I personally want to thank Steve and Ken for their contributions during what was an unprecedented 2012 season,” Payton said in a statement released by the team. “Philosophically we are changing our defense to a 3-4 alignment and right now is the best time to accomplish this transition.”

The moves don’t come as a huge surprise. Although Spagnuolo was Payton’s hand-picked choice a year ago, the defense struggled mightily in the 2012 season. Spagnuolo’s defense allowed more yards than any defense in NFL history.

The switch to the 3-4 will be challenging for whoever is brought in as the new coordinator. The Saints also will have to find some new personnel to fit in the 3-4 scheme. That won’t be easy because the team currently is about $20 million over the expected salary cap.

Around the NFC South

January, 22, 2013
1/22/13
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Let's take a morning look at the top headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Although tight end Tony Gonzalez has said it’s likely he’ll retire, the team is hoping he returns for another season. I still don’t think that’s out of the question. Gonzalez played at a very high level and looks like he could continue to contribute. Some teammates have been lobbying Gonzalez. But I think he’ll take a month or so to back away from the game and then make a final decision on what he wants to do.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The team reportedly interviewed Bill Davis for its vacancy at linebackers coach. But Joseph Person also writes that the Panthers are expected to meet with Brian VanGorder, who spent four seasons as Atlanta’s defensive coordinator before moving to Auburn.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said he’s looking forward to the return of head coach Sean Payton from suspension. Although Payton is known almost exclusively as an offensive mind, Spagnuolo said he thinks the head coach will bring plenty of ideas on how to fix a defense that allowed more yards than any defense in NFL history.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Stephen Holder takes a look at some of the cornerback prospects at the Senior Bowl. It’s no secret the Bucs will be in the market for at least one cornerback. But the way this draft appears to be shaping up so far, the Bucs might not get good value at cornerback in the middle of the first round. They might have to address the position beyond the first round.

Around the NFC South

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
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Time for a morning run through the headlines from around the division:

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Coach Greg Schiano said he still is evaluating his coaching staff, according to Roy Cummings. That means there still is a chance there could be changes to a defensive staff that didn’t produce great results. On offense, the Bucs already have openings for a receivers coach and a quarterbacks coach. John McNulty, who coached for Schiano at Rutgers, has coached both of those positions in the past. But the Bucs might be waiting to see what happens with offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, who has interviewed for the head coaching job in Chicago. If Sullivan leaves, McNulty would be a logical candidate for that spot.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

General manager Mickey Loomis said it’s up to coach Sean Payton to make any changes on the coaching staff. Payton is suspended until after the Super Bowl. There’s been some speculation that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo could be on the hot seat after his unit ranked last in the league. But I think Spagnuolo sticks around. He was Payton’s hand-picked guy last year.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Tom Sorensen writes that new general manager Dave Gettleman isn’t a flashy guy. That fits the Panthers’ way. It also sounds like Gettelman’s personality is a bit like former general manager Marty Hurney’s. That’s not a bad thing. Hurney was low-key and didn’t have a big ego. For a lot of years, that personality fit well with the Panthers.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Television analyst Jimmy Johnson believes the Falcons are ready to take the next step and win a playoff game. I feel the same way. I’ll explain my reasoning in a column that’s coming a bit later on.

Mutiny on the Saints?

January, 2, 2013
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Larry Holder has an explosive story in which an unnamed New Orleans player says Steve Spagnuolo should be fired and proceeds to rip the defensive coordinator in multiple ways.

Although players defended Spagnuolo during the season, the player said the team wasn’t on board with the coordinator.

"Trust me all the guys were being politically correct this season when answering questions," the player said. "It's bad."

The Saints allowed more yards than any defense in NFL history and ranked No. 32 in overall defense.

The player was critical of Spagnuolo for not making in-game adjustments and not letting players have input.

"He does have that good-guy persona, but he is a control freak and treats people like crap," the player said. “[Spagnuolo has] no patience and zero personality.’’

I know some people are going to write this off because the source of the quotes was anonymous. But sometimes you have to use anonymous sources to get the truth.

I thought many of New Orleans’ defensive problems were because the Saints didn’t have the personnel to run Spagnuolo’s defense. But reading these quotes makes me wonder if the problem goes way beyond that.

It makes me wonder if Spagnuolo will be retained. The Saints are in a weird spot because coach Sean Payton remains suspended until after the Super Bowl. But general manager Mickey Loomis and interim head coach Joe Vitt could make a move if they feel Spagnuolo was the real problem with the defense.

NFC South afternoon update

December, 17, 2012
12/17/12
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I just arrived back at NFC South blog headquarters, so let’s take a quick run through some headlines from around the division:


ATLANTA FALCONS



Coach Mike Smith needs to shut down Roddy White’s Twitter account. White, who has a history of offending people on Twitter, criticized Jeff Green of the Boston Celtics. I stopped following the NBA after Larry Bird, Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale left the Celtics and find the NBA quite boring these days. But the last thing I want to hear is White’s opinion on anything outside of football. And I'm not even sure that letting White share his opinions on football is a very good idea.

Center/guard Joe Hawley will return to the team Tuesday after serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. I wouldn’t count on Hawley’s return making much difference. Hawley is a guy the Falcons once hoped would be the eventual replacement for veteran center Todd McClure. But I don’t think the team’s hopes for Hawley are too high these days.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Tom Sorensen writes that a lot of people within the Panthers’ organization believe that the season could have gone in a totally different direction if the Panthers had held on in and won against the Falcons in the Georgia Dome in a game in late September. The fact is the Panthers didn’t win that game and it put their season into a downward spiral. They won the rematch with Atlanta, they won on Sunday at San Diego and, if they finish their season with strong performances in the final two games, coach Ron Rivera stands a good chance of keeping his job.

A group of Panthers’ fans took out a full-page ad (there's no indication center Ryan Kalil was involved in this one) in The Charlotte Observer on Monday, imploring owner Jerry Richardson to get rid of Rivera. I’m happy to see advertising money flowing to any newspaper at a time when the industry is struggling. But I’m not so sure the plea carries much weight. Like I said above, I think there’s a decent chance Rivera keeps his job. I also think there’s a growing chance interim general manager Brandon Beane moves into that role on a permanent basis.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Jeff Duncan writes that there still is a very remote chance the Saints could make the playoffs. It would take something close to a miracle. But, hey, if it doesn’t happen, maybe the Saints can file another appeal.

Nakia Hogan writes that Sunday marked the first time a defense coached by Steve Spagnuolo ever shut out an opponent. That’s great. But don’t get too excited. Tampa Bay was dismal on offense and that might have had as much to do with the shutout as anything the Saints did.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Quarterback Josh Freeman said that a team that got shut out by the NFL’s worst defense still is “unified.’’ I don’t think the Bucs are in complete disarray like they were under former coach Raheem Morris at the end of last season. But I think new coach Greg Schiano needs to get better results out of his team in the final two games or else the Bucs will face a very long offseason. Schiano’s hard-line approach seemed to work nicely early in the season, but what’s happened recently makes you wonder if his methods are wearing thin on his players.

NFC South afternoon update

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
5:43
PM ET
The practice reports are coming in very fast from all around the division this Wednesday afternoon. So let's run quickly through a bunch of news and notes from all precincts.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

It appears as if cornerback Anthony Gaitor, who had been sidelined by a hamstring injury, will make his season debut Sunday against Philadelphia. That couldn’t come at a better time for the Buccaneers because Eric Wright is serving a suspension and LeQuan Lewis has a knee injury that could hold him out. Gaitor could get instant playing time behind starters E.J. Biggers and Leonard Johnson.

Offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said an ESPN report that he pursued the coaching job at Boston College was inaccurate. But there also are rumblings that Tampa Bay special assistant Butch Davis could be a candidate for the job at Florida International University. The Boston College job already has been filled, so that’s not even an issue for Sullivan and the Bucs. But Davis, who has been a head coach on the college level and has ties to South Florida, certainly seems like a logical option for Florida International.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Defensive end Junior Galette, who missed four games with an ankle injury, practiced Wednesday. If Galette is able to play Sunday, he could provide a boost for a pass rush that’s been pretty ordinary.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnoulo said he admires MetLife Stadium, but said it doesn’t mean as much to him as Giants Stadium. Spagnuolo had a couple of years as a New York assistant, including the 2008 season in which the Giants went on to win the Super Bowl.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Quarterback Cam Newton said Wednesday that no job (not even his own) is safe right now. I think that’s true for just about every other member of the Panthers. But Newton’s job is safe going forward. The team has a lot invested in him and whoever the team ends up hiring as the new general manager likely will have to convince owner Jerry Richardson he can win with Newton.

ATLANTA FALCONS

On the same day Atlanta safety William Moore was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week, he missed practice with a hamstring injury. The Falcons could have their depth tested in the secondary as cornerback Asante Samuel also missed practice with a shoulder injury. The Falcons can turn to Robert McClain and Christopher Owens if Samuel is unable to play Sunday. Chris Hope would be the likely replacement if Moore has to miss any time.

Around the NFC South

December, 4, 2012
12/04/12
10:18
AM ET
Time for a look at some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

D. Orlando Ledbetter writes that the Falcons, who already have clinched the NFC South, aren’t planning on letting up. That’s exactly the attitude I’d expect from this bunch. Since the moment the Falcons lost to the Giants in last season’s playoffs, it’s been made very clear this team isn’t going to settle for simply making the playoffs. The goal is to get multiple wins in the postseason.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Safety Sherrod Martin was placed on injured reserve after suffering a knee injury Sunday. Martin had been reduced to being a role player after losing his starting job to Haruki Nakamura in the preseason.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

After allowing their first 10 opponents to put up more than 400 yards of total offense, Bradley Handwerger notes the Saints have held opponents under that number the past two weeks. That’s a sign that Steve Spagnuolo’s defense is catching on. But the Saints still have lost the past two games. There’s still plenty of room for improvement by this defense and much of it will have to come after the season. The Saints need to add players that fit Spagnuolo’s system, particularly some pass-rushers up front.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Cornerback Anthony Gaitor, who has been out all season with an injury, has been cleared to play this week. That’s good news because cornerback/return man LeQuan Lewis might have to miss time with a knee injury. Gaitor could get playing time behind starting cornerbacks E.J. Biggers and Leonard Johnson right away. The Bucs might also give rookie running back Michael Smith a look as their return man.

Wrap-up: Saints 38, Raiders 17

November, 18, 2012
11/18/12
7:24
PM ET

Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 38-17 victory against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday:

What it means: After an 0-4 start, the Saints are now 5-5 and that at least puts them on the fringe of the playoff picture. It still is going to take a pretty miraculous finish for the Saints to get into the postseason. But hey, a month ago, their season appeared to be over. At the very least, the Saints are going to remain relevant for the next few weeks. At best, they’ll make the playoffs and be one of the great turnaround stories in recent history.

Breakthrough moment? Since moving from cornerback in his second season, I’ve always thought Malcolm Jenkins had a chance to become one of the league’s top free safeties. He has all the physical skills and the work ethic. But for reasons I could never quite put my finger on, Jenkins hadn’t recorded an interception since 2010. That changed Sunday in a big way. In the first quarter, Jenkins picked off a pass and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown. Speaking of safeties who haven’t had a lot of interceptions recently, strong safety Roman Harper, who went through the entire 2011 season without an interception, came up with his second interception of the season. Looks like that Steve Spagnuolo defense, in which safeties are supposed to be safeties and not pass-rushers, might be starting to take hold.

Ingram’s not a bust: For the last season and a half, a lot of fans have been claiming that running back Mark Ingram, a first-round pick in 2011, was a bust. I’ve never thought that was the case. I thought he was just the victim of a very crowded backfield. That backfield still is crowded, but Ingram has had a few good games recently and he’s starting to stand out from the crowd. Sunday might have been his best game yet. He carried 12 times for 67 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown run.

What’s next: The Saints host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.

NFC South midseason bests/worsts

November, 7, 2012
11/07/12
3:15
PM ET
We rolled out our All-NFC South midseason team Wednesday. Now, it’s time to run through some other bests and worsts from the first half of the season.

Smith
Smith
Best job by a head coach: Atlanta’s Mike Smith is 8-0. You can’t even consider anyone else.

Best job by a general manager: Atlanta’s Thomas Dimitroff. See above explanation.

Worst job by a general manager: Carolina's Marty Hurney. He took the fall after a 1-5 start.

Best signing: Tampa Bay paid dearly for Vincent Jackson. But Josh Freeman finally has a true No. 1 receiver, and it’s paying dividends.

Worst signing: You could make a case for New Orleans defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley. But I think the fact that the contract extension coach Sean Payton signed more than a year ago was voided by the NFL is a fiasco. Maybe this will get resolved happily. But how can you have a coach, who was supposed to be under contract through 2015, sitting on the verge of possible free agency? (Note: Carolina’s signing of running back Mike Tolbert, when the Panthers already had a crowded backfield, gets honorable mention).

Best non-move: Atlanta fans were screaming for the Falcons to sign free-agent defensive end Mario Williams. Dimitroff didn't listen. Ask Buffalo fans how much Williams has helped the Bills.

Rookie of the Year: This one’s become easy after the past few games. Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin has a chance to become one of the NFL’s best and most complete running backs.

Most Valuable Player: Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is the only name fit to appear here.

Biggest disappointment: You can’t hang all of Carolina’s problems on quarterback Cam Newton. But you can put a lot on him. He hasn’t stepped forward at all after a very promising rookie season. This team has been among the biggest disappointments in the NFL. When that happens, the quarterback has to shoulder some of the blame.

Best trade: I still am stunned that Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik was able to get anything more than a week of free cab rides in exchange for troubled cornerback Aqib Talib. Dominik had to give up a seventh-round pick next year along with Talib, but he got New England’s fourth-round pick in 2013.

Best coordinator: It’s a tough call between Atlanta’s Mike Nolan on defense and Dirk Koetter on offense. They’ve both been fantastic. But I’ll give the nod to Koetter, because he made two important discoveries -- the screen pass and the fact that Sam Baker can play left tackle in the NFL.

Worst coordinator: It would be too easy to go with New Orleans’ Steve Spagnuolo. Besides, I don’t think he has the personnel he needs to really make his system work. Instead, I’ll go with Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. There’s no question he has personnel to work with, but the results haven’t been there.

Best equipment manager: This time, and this time only, I’m going with Atlanta’s Brian Boigner. We all know that Carolina’s Jackie Miles is the best equipment manager in the history of the NFL, and probably will be a first-ballot selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Miles hasn’t lost his fastball. But Boigner really stepped up a few weeks ago, when he and his assistants jumped into overdrive and got the Falcons out of Philadelphia before Hurricane Sandy arrived.

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