2015 Division Preview Series: NFC South

This is part seven of our eight-part division preview series. We will pose two questions per team, one about offense and one about defense, and then predict each team’s 2015 record and final standing within the division. Tune in each Sunday for a new part of the series!

Atlanta Falcons (6-10 in 2014, 3rd in NFC South)

How will the offensive line perform in 2015?

2014 was a less than stellar year for the Falcons' offensive line, which gave up 31 sacks in 2014 and was negatively ranked in both pass and run blocking by Pro Football Focus. The offensive line started struggling midway through the season after first round pick, Jake Matthews, received a high ankle sprain while playing against the Saints. Matthews finished out the season as one of the worst ranked offensive lineman in the league, with the rest of the line not doing much better. 

However, expectations for rookie left tackles must be tempered as the position is one of the most important ones in the league with a steep learning curve. This year, the Falcons plan on transitioning to a zone blocking based scheme to help alleviate the ground game and open up lanes for running back Tevin Coleman. Additionally, the Falcons released offensive tackle Sam Baker this past season and are looking at replacing him with Ryan Schraeder, who excelled as a pass blocker last year. Overall, these changes only point to an improvement in the offensive line. 

Matt Ryan has experienced offensive lines on both ends of the spectrum throughout his career and has proven he can play at an elite level when given solid blocking. He posted a passer rating of 99.1 and was a top-five quarterback in terms of yardage in 2012, the same year his line was ranked positively in both pass and run blocking. With the transition to the zone blocking scheme and Jake Matthews adjusting to the NFL, Ryan may once again have a career year. 

How will first-year coach Dan Quinn's defensive scheme impact Atlanta's defense?

The Falcons' rookie coach is the former defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks, and it is no surprise that the front office went with a defensive minded coach after the team ranked last in defense last year, giving up almost 400 yards a game. The team further displayed its commitment to improving the defense after drafting Clemson linebacker Vic Beasley with the eighth overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. 

Quinn brings the "4-3 Under" defensive scheme with him to Atlanta. The scheme mainly consists of four defensive lineman, three linebackers, and four secondary players mainly in the Cover 3. The defensive lineman must be able to take double blocks, especially the defensive tackles. While the tackles focus on securing their gaps, the defensive ends' main responsibility is getting up field and rushing the passer or snuffing out the run. 

The scheme also utilizes the LEO position, a hybrid linebacker/defensive end whose primary responsibility is to rush the passer. Beasley should easily fill this role, as he played a similar position at Clemson and has the athleticism and versatility to transition to the NFL.

Quinn's defense utilizes three types of linebackers: the SAM, the MIKE, and the WILL. The SAM linebacker has to be an athletic and rangy linebacker that can cover most of the field, keeping up with tight ends and running backs. Justin Durant should be able to fill this role well if he manages to stay on the field—he's missed sixteen games over the past two seasons. 

The MIKE backer must be a bigger, instinctual player that is capable of covering the middle of the field on third down. Falcons fans should consider projected starter Paul Worrilow's ability to play the MIKE position after receiving a -12.2 rating from Pro Football Focus in Pass Coverage. 

The WILL backer is usually the fastest of the group and the one picking up the tackles. The Falcons signed Brooks Reed this off-season to be their starting outside linebacker, and he should excel in that position, ranking positively in run defense according to Pro Football Focus.

Finally, Quinn's scheme requires strong, physical corner backs to press the receiver before covering their zone in the Cover 3 base defense. Desmond Trufant, the third-year player already ranked as the #6 corner back in the league, should benefit from this new role because he particularly excels in zone coverage and bumping wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. 

Dan Quinn's arrival in Atlanta appears to be a perfect marriage between scheme and personnel, with most of the critical positi ons being filled with players that fit the role. While expectations for the unit should still be tempered, anticipating a defense ranked 16-20 should not be unreasonable for Falcons fans. 

Prediction: 7-9, 3rd in NFC South

The Falcons are recovering from a disappointing season with the lowest ranked defense, but with a new scheme and head coach, the team should improve in all areas on that side of the ball. The Falcons will be a contender for the division title in 2015 but ultimately fall short. 


Carolina Panthers (7-8-1 in 2014, 1st in NFC South)

How will Kelvin Benjamin's injury affect the Carolina Panthers?

During practice last week, Benjamin injured his knee, and an MRI confirmed that he had torn his left ACL and will soon require season-ending surgery. Many are concerned about the vacuum Benjamin leaves as the #1 receiver in the Panthers' offense. The second-year receiver was building a good rapport with Cam Newton at the end of last season, and he was expected to step up and help the young quarterback progress as a passer. His large frame was especially beneficial to Newton, who is known for making wide and errant passes at times in the red zone.

The injury cannot be understated. Without Benjamin, the Panthers are left with Devin Funchess, Jarret Boykin, and Corey Brown at the receiver position. This pushes rookie Funchess to the starting role when he is unprepared for the position and learning curve that comes with being the #1 receiver. Tight end Greg Olsen will most likely be Newton's favorite target this year and should provide a safety valve for him over the middle. 

The Panthers must now compensate for their passing game by running the ball, which fortunately looks to be one of the better units in the league. The team cut DeAngelo Williams last year, the all-time leading rusher for the team, after his worst season as a pro. Jonathan Stewart will be expected to fill the role as the #1 back this year after being named the starter at the end of last year and running for the most yards among running backs during the last four games. Fullback Mike Tolbert looks to be coming back after being injured last year and should help Stewart tremendously. 

Ultimately, the Panthers will be forced to rely heavily on their run game to take pressure off of Newton for the time being. Once Funchess has adapted to the NFL, the Panthers can look forward to becoming a dual-threat offense again. 

Can the secondary give the defensive line time to pressure the quarterback?

Of all the position groups on the team, the secondary should be one of the team's smallest concerns. Josh Norman and Bene Benwikere are expected to be the team's starting corner backs this year and are one of the more underrated corner back duos in the league; Pro Football Focus rated both corner backs in the top 30 at the position last year. Roman Harper will continue to be the starting strong safety for the team, while second-year player Tre Boston should step in as the starting free safety after playing well in the last five games of the season.  

However, the defensive line presents a different story. After Greg Hardy was placed on the Commissioner's Exempt List last year due to off-the-field issues, the defensive line struggled with applying consistent pressure to the quarterback. It wasn't until the last four games of the season that Charles Johnson and Kawaan Short emerged and recorded seven sacks together. 

Playing in the same division as Drew Brees and Matt Ryan means pass rush is absolutely essential if the Panthers hope to slow down either quarterback. The defensive line seemed to come into its own after Boston was inserted into the lineup. One possible reason for this is because Boston quickly informed opposing teams of his ball-hawking abilities and held opposing quarterbacks to an average quarterback rating of 24.2 in the games he started. 

The defensive line should be able to apply more pressure this year, as Boston is named the starter. Both of the units work in tandem with each other, so when one suffers an injury or setback, the other is affected as well. With both groups looking rested and ready for the season, Brees and Ryan should be prepared for a tough defense come game day. 

Prediction: 9-7, 1st in NFC South

The Panthers were the most complete team in the NFC South last year, and that trend should continue in 2015. While the injury to Benjamin does set this team back in terms of offense, they can expect to repeat as division champions this year. 


New Orleans Saints (7-9 in 2014, 2nd in NFC South)

How will Jimmy Graham's departure affect the Saints offense?

During this past off-season, the Saints traded Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham for center Max Unger and a first round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, which the Saints used to draft Clemson linebacker Stephone Anthony. 

Many fans and analysts are concerned about Graham's departure. Graham recorded 355 receptions, 4,396 yards, and 46 touchdowns over the past four seasons and was Drew Brees's favorite target during that time. Graham's ability to create a mismatch against opposing linebackers and safeties contributed greatly to the Saints offense and made him one of the best receiving tight ends in the league. 

However, Saints fans should not be concerned about Graham's departure as long as Drew Brees is still the quarterback. One of the reasons Brees is in the conversation for the Hall of Fame is his ability to elevate the level of play of those around him. Brees still has Marques Colston, his other favorite receiver, and Brandin Cooks, who is making a name for himself this preseason. 

The Saints are also looking to recommit to the ground game this year, putting less pressure on Brees to carry the offense. Mark Ingram quietly had a solid season last year, recording 964 yards and nine touchdowns in 13 games. The Saints drafted Andrus Peat, an offensive tackle from Stanford, with their 13th overall pick in the hope that he can help anchor the left side of the line. 

While Graham was certainly an important cog in the Saints offense, the team should not expect any major setbacks in 2015. 

How will the departure of Junior Galette affect the Saints pass rush?

In late July, Sean Payton informed Galette, who had signed a four-year, $41.5 million contract extension with the team in 2014, that he would be released in less than a week. The move was based on Galette's off-the-field issues regarding domestic violence, his lack of leadership abilities as a defensive captain, and his rocky relationship with Payton. Galette lambasted the team for cutting him, claiming it was the worst move the team had ever made. The team was so adamant on releasing Galette that they were willing to pay the $12.1 million he is due in 2016, along with his $5.45 million cap hit this year. 

However troubled Galette has been off the field, it is hard to ignore the hole he leaves on the defensive line. Galette recorded 22 sacks over the past two seasons. In his place, the Saints will most likely place Akiem Hicks in the starting lineup, and he will play for an extension in his contract year. Cameron Jordan should continue to be the team's best pass rusher and can hopefully help rookies Anthony and Hau'oli Kikaha adjust to the NFL.

The pass rush this year will be critical towards the defense as a whole. The secondary looks to improve this year after the team signed former Patriot and Seahawks corner back Brandon Browner to a three-year, $15 million contract. If the pass rush is unable to get to the quarterback and apply the necessary pressure, the team could easily return to being a bottom 10 defense like it was a year ago. 

Prediction: 8-8, 2nd in NFC South

The Saints will always be in contention for a division title as long as Brees and Payton are leading the team, but a weaker defense and tougher competition from the Falcons and Panthers this year may prevent the team from playing in January. 


Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-14 in 2014, 4th in NFC South)

How will Jameis Winston lead the offense in 2015?

After a dismal season and a 2-14 record to show for it, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided it was time to move on and rebuild the franchise. The team released journeyman quarterback Josh McCown and selected quarterback Jameis Winston from Florida State. It came as little surprise to most that Winston was selected with the first overall pick, as he was lauded as the #1 quarterback in this draft class throughout the entire process. 

Winston comes to an offense with more direction than it had last year. The Buccaneers hired former UC Berkeley coach Jeff Tedford as the offensive coordinator, but when he required heart surgery during the preseason, quarterback coach Marcus Arroyo was forced into the role. The result was a 30th ranked offense that put up only 4,672 yards and allowed 56 sacks throughout the season. For reference, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, and Matt Ryan all threw for more yards than the Buccaneers achieved in total. 

This year, the Buccaneers have hired former Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to help turnaround the anemic offense. Koetter's vertical offense emphasizes play action passes, two back sets, and passes out of the backfield. Winston helped run a fast paced mix of the Pistol, spread, and pro style offense at Florida State, and he will be expected to lead his receivers and quickly go through his progressions, something he wasn't required to do in college. 

Growing pains are to be expected of Winston, like any other rookie quarterback, but with solid players in skill positions such as Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, Winston should be able to become a leader for his offense and team. 

How effective will the Cover 2 defense be for the Buccaneers?

Last year, the Buccaneers hired former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith to be the head coach of the team and signed former Minnesota Vikings head coach Leslie Fraser as the defensive coordinator. Smith brought his signature Cover 2 defense with him and is looking to improve upon his implementation of the scheme this year. 

The basis of the Cover 2 defense is a "bend, but don't break" philosophy. The defense allows short yards and first downs before eventually stopping the offense or getting a turnover. 

The linebackers in this scheme are usually the ones tackling the ball carrier and are responsible for pass coverage across the middle. The corner backs are usually responsible for jamming the receiver at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the offense's timing and have more responsibility in stopping the run. Alterraun Verner is the ideal corner back for the Buccaneers, as he was ranked the #1 cornerback in run defense last year by Pro Football Focus. 

However, the most important part of the Cover 2 defense is the defensive line. The defensive line's main obligation is to provide constant pressure on the offense so the linebackers and secondary have time to cover their zones. While All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy can be expected to take double teams for most plays, the rest of the defensive line must be able to step up and apply pressure if the scheme is to work. 

Prediction: 5-11, 4th in NFC South

The Buccaneers will definitely improve on last season, but they are still in the rebuilding process. A division title may not be within their grasp, but with all the young, talented pieces they have on both sides of the ball, expect them to be in the conversation in a few years. 

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