Apr 2, 2011
The NFC South continues to get stronger, with two teams (Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints) making it back to the playoffs and one that played well enough to qualify as well (Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Of course, the division also sports the worst team in football last season in the Carolina Panthers, who own the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft. There is hope for them however, as the story of this division has been its rise from the depths of mediocrity based mostly on development of its young players. Not too long ago the Falcons and Saints were some of the league’s worst teams while the Buccaneers were 3-13 just one year ago. These clubs were able to build on young talent and good coaching, and if the Panthers can follow suit, the NFC South will be one of the strongest divisions in 2011.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
The defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints entered the playoffs with high hopes, drawing a cake-walk matchup against the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card round. Unfortunately, the game ended up not being such an easy contest as they lost in stunning fashion with a final score of 41-36. It was a brutal defeat uncharacteristic of a team with such great leadership in quarterback Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton. These two ensure that if the team can shake off arguably one of the worst losses in franchise history they will have a chance to return to the promise land.
1. Wide Receiving Corps — Led by Marques Colston, the New Orleans Saints sport one of the strongest top-to-bottom receiving cores in the league. They spread the ball around better than anyone, and while that isn’t great for fantasy football owners it is a nice luxury for Drew Brees and company.
2. Drew Brees — Speaking of Brees, the quarterback actually had a bit of a down season, with 22 interceptions being the highest total of his career. Still, the signal caller eclipsed 4,300 passing yards for the fifth straight year and his 33 touchdown passes ranked tied for second in the NFL. Considering the injuries in the running game and the fact that he still posted the second highest completion percentage of his career Brees remains the team’s best asset.
3. Sean Payton — One of the oddest parts of the Saints’ bizarre playoff loss was the fact that Payton couldn’t figure out how to stop a Seattle Seahawks offense that averaged just 19.4 points per game during the regular season. It only speaks to his reputation as a coach and how he is still regarded as a good in-game manager. Payton is among the top coaches in the NFL and is surely one of the team’s strong points and will make sure the hangover from last season doesn’t carry over into 2011
1. Solve the Logjam in the Backfield — The backfield was a total mess for the New Orleans Saints last year, as Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush both battled injury and inefficiency all season. Chris Ivory ended up being a nice surprise for the team, and even he ended up on injured reserve with a foot injury by year’s end. Now, with Bush entering the final year of his contract, Thomas getting a new four-year deal, and Ivory deserving of more carries, the team will have to figure out what to do with their backfield.
2. Generate More Turnovers in Secondary — During their Super run to the Lombardi Trophy in 2009 the Saints totaled 39 total turnovers, 26 of which coming on interceptions. In 2010 they recorded just nine interceptions, the fewest in the NFL. Clearly there was something left to be desired in the play of the secondary, and if the defense is truly motivated to avenge the embarrassing shellacking put on them by the Seattle Seahawks they will have to improve on that weak interception total.
3. More Pressure off the Edge — Something that likely contributed to the low interception total was the serious lack of pressure from the Saints’ pass rush. The main culprits were defensive ends Will Smith and Alex Brown, who combined for just seven and a half sacks on the year, compared to 19 a year ago. Now with Brown set to turn 32 and Smith facing domestic abuse charges this offseason, the team will have to make it a priority to find answers at this position. Look for New Orleans to target a defensive end with the No. 24 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.