NFL Midseason Grades: NFC South
By Tayyib Abu.
There have been a lot of changes in the world this year. There have been many changes in the NFL world this year. But, none were as big as Tom Brady deciding to swap New England for Tampa Bay. Brady's seismic move to Florida meant all eyes were going to be on the Bucs and the NFC South. With Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown following Brady, it made this division must-watch. Tampa Bay were the offseason champions. Everyone loved the Bucs.
Well, not everyone. The team that has owned this division for the last three years weren't enamoured with everyone anointing Tampa Bay as the kings of the south. The New Orleans Saints were still here and had their own story to write. The Saints have arguably been the best team in the NFL for the past three years, yet they have suffered heartbreak in the playoffs each time. This was the year where that would change. New Orleans went all in; they signed veteran after veteran to extend this championship window. Janoris Jenkins, Emmanuel Sanders and Malcolm Jenkins all signed in the offseason. 2020 was now or never for New Orleans. With major problems looming in regards to the salary cap and Drew Brees already preparing for his post-playing career. This season could be the last legitimate shot at a title the Saints have for a while.
The Atlanta Falcons came into this season as a team with no real identity. Not bad enough to tank but not good enough to win the division and the coach was on the hot seat. Atlanta still had former MVP Matt Ryan and an excellent wide receiver duo in Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. But there were serious questions about the defence and the infamous collapse in Superbowl 51 still plagued this team.
As for the Carolina Panthers, this was year one of a long term rebuild. With new coach Matt Rhule at the helm, it was going to be intriguing to see how this team would develop. The Panthers went heavy in the draft as Carolina drafted defensive players with every pick. But, they still had Christian McCaffery and a serviceable quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater. Nobody was expecting Carolina to compete for the division, but we did want to see to some signs that the team is on the right track.
This is a fascinating division and now that we have reached and passed the halfway point of the season, its time to see who's shone, who needs to do more and who is failing.
New Orleans Saints (6-2) 1st in NFC South
Offensive Points Per Game: 30.5 (4th in NFL)
Defensive Points Per Game: 25.0 (14th in NFL)
Contrary to popular belief, the New Orleans Saints aren't finished. They're not going anywhere; in fact, the Saints might just be getting started. New Orleans bludgeoned Tampa Bay last Sunday night. It was a dominant display. The Saints had been discounted and written off by everybody, but with a statement win like that, New Orleans has put the rest of the NFL on notice.
Write them off at your peril. This team is nowhere near finished.
New Orleans dominated in every phase. The return of Michael Thomas unleashed this offense. With Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Sanders and Jared Cook; Drew Brees has an array of weapons to use. In addition to having all that talent, New Orleans has Taysom Hill. Hill can do everything, and with a genius play-caller in Sean Payton calling the game, the Saints might have the most exciting offense in the NFL. It's averaged 30 points a game without Thomas, and it should be even more with him back.
It was a huge win at the right time. The Saints were slow to start. They dropped to 1-2 with prime-time defeats to Green Bay and the Raiders. There were questions about Brees; there were questions about Sean Payton. However, those criticisms were misguided.
The Saints defense has only played two good games. Both came against the Bucs. Rodgers carved up the secondary, while Josh Jacobs ran all over them in Las Vegas. New Orleans possesses elite talent at every level. Cam Jordan and the emerging Trey Hendrickson are displaying the skill to get after quarterbacks. Demario Davis is marshalling the middle of the field and Marshon Lattimore getting back to his Pro Bowl form. The Saints defense is finally clicking.
The Saints had snuck out victories against lesser opposition which brought them to 5-2 before the Tampa Bay game. One score wins over the Bears, Panthers and Lions didn't instil huge confidence.
The defense had difficulty restricting opponents while the offense didn't click against Chicago. But, New Orleans are now fully healthy, and in the biggest game of the year, they crushed their opponents. That has to be the level of performance we see from now till Week 17.
New Orleans has had some shaky moments, but they're in the lead of the division and have the tiebreaker over their nearest rival. That's pretty good considering the injuries and some average performances.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3) - 2nd in NFC South
Offensive PPG: 27.8 (9th in NFL
Defensive PPG: 22.6 (9th in NFL)
It's been home run or strikeout for Tampa Bay. There have been some brilliant wins; a dominant win over Green Bay is the highlight of the season so far. However, there has also been some ugly losses.
An ill-disciplined defeat to Chicago and two blowouts to New Orleans also make their way onto the Bucs' record. Tampa Bay is still working out kinks in its gameplan, while they are also trying to stitch an offense together.
It is an offense that has some incredible talent. For all that talent, there is still one domineering factor. Tom Brady. Brady is 43 years old and must be protected. In those three defeats, the opposing defense pressured Brady. The former Patriot's QBR in those three defeats were 30.6, 57.9 and 3.8. They're not good numbers for a player who hovers in the 70 plus mark when protected. When the Bucs have played talented defenses, they have been exposed. This is a pass-first team, and Brady needs protecting.
It happened against the Chargers until the Chargers got to another fourth-quarter meltdown. The Bucs offense will be fine when facing poor defenses, but this team's aim is a Super Bowl. Can this offensive line live with the Rams, Eagles or even the Saints front sevens if they meet in January?
Defensively it has been impressive. Todd Bowles is displaying the coaching ability that got him a head coaching job. The Tampa defense is nasty. With Shaq Barrett, Vita Vea and Ndamokung Suh; it is ferocious upfront.
Devin White is quickly emerging as one of the best linebackers in the NFL while Jason Pierre-Paul is proving he still has it. The secondary has been impressive considering it has sophomore Sean Murphy-Bunting and rookie Antoine Winfield Jr. This pair have started very well in difficult circumstances for all young players. However, Bowles called a bad game against the Saints. Drew Brees is 40 years old, and his arm mightn't be what it was, but he knows coverages inside out. Deploying a soft zone coverage with zero pass rush put this defense at the mercy of Brees.
I'm still not convinced by Tampa Bay. The Bucs have beaten teams they'd be expected to beat. They threw away a game against Chicago, but when Tampa has played the best team on their schedule. They've been crushed both times. From what we've seen so far, the Buccaneers aren't a Superbowl contender.
Carolina Panthers (3-6) - 3rd in NFC South
Offensive PPG: 23.3 (23rd in NFL)
Defensive PPG: 25.1 (15th in NFL)
The Carolina Panthers have been a pleasant surprise of the 2020 season. A young, inexperienced team has displayed plenty of grit and determination. No one has blown out the Panthers. This team has been competitive all season long. They hung with the reigning champion Chiefs last week and took the Saints to the limit in Louisiana.
Matt Rhule is clearly cultivating a strong culture and is building a great team spirit. Also, Carolina has done this without their best player for most of the year. Christian McCaffery has been missing for a large part of the season, and yet the offense has still been good.
A lot of this can be credited to Joe Brady. He is the offensive coordinator for the Panthers and last year he was the passing game coordinator at LSU. Apparently, that offense was quite good (!!)
Coach Brady is developing an offense without his best player. This is an offense with Teddy Bridgewater under center. Bridgewater is a placeholder, and yet this offense is putting points on the board and moving the ball on the ground well, with or without McCaffery. Robby Anderson is blossoming into a number one receiver, and when McCaffery came back, the offense looked potent.
Defensively it is a long term project. The Panthers drafted exclusively on defense, and it will take time. However, there are positive signs. Jeremy Chinn is popping off the screen every time you watch the Panthers. He tackles brilliantly in the secondary.
Derrick Brown had a difficult start but is now coming to understand how to clog running lanes in the NFL. British born Efe Obada had a good game last week as he hurried Mahomes several times. The fact that this defense is not in the bottom half in points per game is a huge testament to the excellent coaching and the development of these young players.
The Panthers have been a big positive for me this year. This team is gutsy, competitive and has a ton of heart. There are plenty of teams more talented than these Panthers, but not many can match their spirit and tenacity. Carolina is on the right track. It will still take time, and there will be bad days, but for an inexperienced coaching staff and squad, they have started in the right manner.
Atlanta Falcons (3-6) - 4th in NFC South
Offensive PPG: 27 (13th in NFL)
Defensive PPG: 27.9 (23rd in NFL)
Where does one even start with the Falcons? Well, we'll start with the fact that Dan Quinn has been fired. The man that was a quarter away from winning a Superbowl was fired in ignominy.
The Falcons have doubled down on their fourth-quarter meltdowns. A special teams disaster cost them victory at Dallas. A complete disaster against Chicago cost them victory. And then to top it off, the Falcons became the first team to score an inadvertent touchdown that cost them the game.
The Falcons offense is still incredibly fun to watch. With Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Hayden Hurst at his disposal, Matt Ryan can still deal. The line is serviceable, and the offense is exciting.
The defense is not good. Opponents have shredded the Atlanta secondary this season. With rookie AJ Terrell learning the hard way it has been a rough time for the defense. It ranks in the bottom 10 in pass yardage allowed. If Grady Jarrett is unable to rush the passer, this defense is there to be torched by opposing quarterbacks and receivers. But this isn't even the biggest problem for Atlanta.
It's the blown leads.
There is clearly a fundamental fault in the Falcons locker room. And it can all be traced back to that Superbowl defeat. Atlanta has never recovered from it, and that is understandable. But with the veteran presence of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, you'd have thought that these players would be able to fix this. It obviously hasn't happened.
It is poor game management from these experienced players, and it will obviously not get better. It's not down to poor coaching that the Falcons didn't dive on an onside kick. It's not the coaches fault that Matt Ryan continues to throw deep with a big lead. Atlanta has experienced players, yet they still blow leads.
Even after Quinn was fired, this problem goes deeper than the coaches and it's permeated into the locker room. The Falcons face a difficult rest of the season and an even more difficult rebuild.