A quarter of the NFL season has finished, and it’s time to grade the performances of the teams in the NFC South after this time period.
New Orleans Saints F
Is there any other possible grade for a team that is currently 0-4 and looks absolutely lost except in their narrow loss against the Green Bay Packers? Things will turn around, but the secondary is a mess and the defense still lacks a pass rushing presence outside of Will Smith. They need some serious magic to happen in New Orleans if they want to make the playoffs, because the Saints look lost without Sean Payton at the helm.
I’m one of those people who thought losing a head coach who has had his scheme firmly entrenched in the team should negatively effect a team to this degree. At this point, I’m definitely re-thinking that line of thought.
Drew Brees has not received adequate protection from his offensive line, with Jermon Bushrod being repeatedly exposed on the left side. Brees has already thrown five picks this season and has not been his usually accurate self with a meager 57.6% completion percentage. I’ve been disappointed with his play under pressure, and the blitz has been getting to him often due to the poor play of his line. He’s still hitting his receivers downfield and has the 9th highest EPA in the league, and there is evidence of more consistent days to come for the Saints offense and the team as whole. But the defensive struggles are completely legitimate, and the Saints pass defense is one of the worst in the league.
Atlanta Falcons A
On the other side of the spectrum, we have the perfect Atlanta Falcons who are well-coached and have the most impressive pass offense so far this season. Julio Jones and Roddy White are in the discussion for the best wide receiver duo in the league, with White shredding defenses with ease. Just look at what he did to the Carolina Panthers last week.
Matt Ryan showed his coolness in the clutch in Week 4, as the Falcons were able to beat out the Panthers in the end to preserve their perfect record and avoid an NFC South upset. In fact, you can make a strong argument for why Ryan has been the best QB in the league this year, because he leads the league in WPA, EPA, success rate, and is second in the league in completion percentage.
Not only do the Falcons have one of the best offenses in the league, but they also have a very good defense that is still going strong even without Brent Grimes. Asante Samuel is a machine in the defensive backfield, and Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas give Atlanta a dominant duo at the linebacker position. Ray Edwards will come around to help John Abraham wreak havoc on opposing QBs, and I’ve been impressed with the play of their safeties this season.
Carolina Panthers D
I may just be an overly bitter Panthers fan here, but I feel like the last two losses were the worst of both worlds for Carolina. They got stomped in front of everybody against the New York Giants, and Cam Newton did not behave like a franchise QB in that three-interception performance.
Then, the Panthers lost on a late field goal to the Falcons in what should have been a big upset for them. Ron Rivera is being far too conservative, and his decision to punt on fourth and one was disappointing, because it put the ball in the hands of Ryan and White and ended up giving Atlanta the win. It’s clear that the Panthers offense is far better than the defense, and one reason for that is the fact that Ron Rivera is adamant on starting Haruki Nakamura over Sherrod Martin even after last week’s putrid performance. Nakamura can’t cover, and White ate him alive.
The offense is one of the most dynamic in the league with a top RB duo and Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell catching bombs downfield, but the defense is a huge question mark. Chris Gamble is a shutdown corner and Charles Johnson is a dynamic DE, but the linebackers need to get back into form and show why they are among the best in the league. The defensive tackles are among the worst in the league, however, which will constantly haunt this team’s run defense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers C-
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have played better than their 1-3 record suggests, because they were close in all three of their last games against NFC East opponents. Josh Freeman has looked solid this season and is better than his underwhelming statistics indicate, and it’s tough not to be impressed with Vincent Jackson so far this season. He’s been an impact signing for them and has helped pick up the slack from the poor play of the running backs. Both Jackson and Mike Williams have been big deep threats for Tampa this year.
The Bucs offense is a subpar unit, but the defense has more than carried its weight. Gerald McCoy and Michael Bennett are terrors on the defensive line, and Aqib Talib has really showed up this season and has shut down receivers all year. Lavonte David looks like he will be a solid starting linebacker in this league for quite some time, and safety Mark Barron is developing. He has struggled in coverage, but it is easy to see that the tools are there (as well as the big hits).
You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.