NFC South: Three New Faces, Three New Defenses
In the eyes of many national pundits, the NFC South is known as a defensive division. The reason why is a bit of a mystery though, as it's been several years since Atlanta and Carolina fielded defenses that merited any sort of praise whatsoever, and even longer since the days of the Dome Patrol in New Orleans.
The reality is that aside from Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the South is about offense. It's about big play offense too, whether that's predicated on the running game (Falcons), the passing game (Saints), or a little bit of both (Panthers).
Last year the Saints, Falcons and Panthers finished first, sixth, and 10th in total offense. On defense, only the Buccaneers cracked the top ten with a ninth place finish.
So this "defensively oriented" division has some work to do if it wishes to earn it's reputation. And three of the teams have new defensive coordinators in 2009.
Each one has their own distinct set of challenges, but each has a lot of potential to draw on for success. This article will look at each new coordinator, what it will take for them to succeed, and the risks they face.
Gregg Williams, New Orleans Saints
Williams two previous stops couldn't be more different. When he arrived in Washington in 2004, he inherited a defense that had finished in 25th place in 2003. The Redskins brought in a couple of new linebackers and Williams built his blitzes around that unit, transforming the defense into the NFL's third best.
However, in Jacksonville he inherited 2007's 12th ranked defense, and it never seemed to grasp his schemes en route to a disappointing 17th place finish in 2008.
Williams generally runs a 4-3 defense, but within that basic set he's willing to do whatever it takes to get the most out of his personnel. He will try and build a defense that suits his players' talent, and put them in a position to succeed.
Williams' base set is similar to Buddy Ryan's old 46 defense, with one safety cheating up and the other providing double coverage on one of the opposing teams' receivers. This means that the quarterback has to guess right or throw into double coverage, and the increased pressure will reduce the time he has to make that decision.
But base set in a Williams defense doesn't mean a lot, as he may blitz from anywhere at any time, and players will change positions and assume roles that aren't intuitive given where they line up at the play's start. The safety may play as a linebacker, while the linebacker blitzes or drops into coverage.
The actual defense will be disguised until the play starts, and if the offense doesn't guess right it's looking at a high potential for broken play, a sack, or a turnover.
The defense is vulnerable to the big play, but it should produce a lot of turnovers and has the potential to really get inside the quarterback's head.
It requires a very solid core of players to be effective. Players in his defense need to be smart and versatile because they're required to learn and play multiple positions.
Those positions also make a lot of pre-snap reads in Williams' scheme, so intelligence, cognitive learning ability and instincts are highly valued assets. This is especially true for the middle linebacker, the nickel corner, and both safeties.
In Washington, Williams had Michael Barrow, Shawn Springs, Fred Smoot and Sean Taylor. He changed the way the Redskins blitzed, letting the line focus on the run while the linebackers brought pressure.
In Jacksonville, the pieces looked to be already in place. Mike Peterson was an elite player who had superb instincts and quickness, and in the secondary he inherited former first round pick Reggie Nelson and Brian Williams. They also had defensive end Derrick Harvey to provide pressure from the line.
But sometimes talent and instincts don't translate to heady play. Where Mike Peterson may have been more athletic and instinctive than Barrow, he never mastered the defense and as a result the entire unit suffered.
Williams has had big success, but past results don't guarantee future success.
Why Williams will succeed
Williams will scheme to the strengths of his players, and his pressure packages will be more effective than his predecessors as a result. Unlike Gibbs, who blitzed frequently and predictably, Williams will be more creative and bring pressure in a variety of ways. His conventional look paired with unconventional schemes will produce a lot of turnovers and broken plays in New Orleans.
Why Williams will fail
As in Jacksonville, Williams inherits a very talented middle linebacker in Johnathan Vilma. But as fast and instinctive as Vilma is, maybe he just doesn't get the playbook and trying to keep up with the complex calls interferes with his natural instincts, making him look hesitant much like Mike Peterson in Jacksonville.
In the secondary, Darren Sharper has the experience to "get" the defense, but Jenkins plays like a rookie and gets caught out of position far too often. The unconventional sets end up confusing the secondary as much as the opposing quarterbacks.
Ron Meeks, Carolina Panthers
Ron Meeks comes to the Carolina Panthers via the Indianapolis Colts. When he took over the coordinator duties for the Colts, he inherited a defense ranked 29th in the league. In his first year they finished 21 spots higher at eighth place.
Of the three new coordinators, Meeks runs the simplest system. He plays a straight up Tampa-2 that focuses on keeping the ball in front of the secondary. It's designed to prevent the big play.
The Tampa-2 is a modified Cover-2 where the middle linebacker assumes responsibility for an extra zone about 15 yards deep off the line of scrimmage in the middle of the field.
In this system, all of the pressure should come from the defensive line, and the linebackers and defensive backs are charged with covering specific zones.
It's a simple "read and react" type of defense that emphasizes speed and athleticism. When Mike Trgovac ran his defense like that in 2008, it turned in a top five performance.
The Panthers have the depth to run this system, and the secondary and linebackers are both areas of strength on the Panther defense.
But on the line they have a disgruntled star defensive end in Julius Peppers, and they only have one good pass rushing defensive tackle in Damione Lewis.
Why Meeks will succeed
Peppers will come back to the Panthers with a vengeance, determined to show the rest of the league that they made a mistake in not trading for him. Rookie Everette Brown applies pressure on the other side much like rookie Dwight Freeny did in Meeks' first year in Indianapolis.
The Carolina defensive secondary is packed with speed and athleticism, and they show it in the implementation of Meeks' defensive scheme.
Why Meeks will fail
The Panthers line can't produce the pressure required to make the defense work, and opposing quarterbacks take advantage of their protection to pick apart the Carolina secondary.
Meeks is also exposed as a coordinator in name only, having basically run Dungy's defense in Indianapolis and is actually running Fox's defense in Carolina. As a result, the team does no better than in the second half of 2008, when Fox allegedly took over defensive scheming from Mike Trgovac.
Jim Bates, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
And then there's the forgotten man, Jim Bates. Lost in all of the changes in Tampa Bay is their new and very experienced defensive coordinator, who represents a pretty big departure from the last guy, Monte Kiffin.
Kiffin ran a Cover-2 defense, where the pressure comes from the line. Bates runs a contain defense. His units are tasked with shutting down the run by forcing it inside.
Instead of rushing the passer, the defensive tackles are charged with plugging the gaps, forcing the run to go outside.
Instead of closing and tackling, the outside linebackers are tasked with preventing the running backs from turning the corner, either sending them out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage or turning them back inside where the middle linebacker will make the tackle.
When it works, it works well. In 2006 Bates took over a Green Bay defense that had been ranked 26th in the league, and improved it to seventh.
But in Denver, he didn't have the personnel needed to make it effective. The Bronco defense that had been ranked 14th in 2007 was 19th under Bates in 2008. What's worse, the defense that is designed to stop the run went from the 12th best rushing defense to the 30th ranked unit.
The contain defense needs some large, run-stuffing defensive tackles who are patient enough to plug the gaps and allow the play to come to them. It also requires fast outside linebackers who can understand and execute Bates' vector based coverage.
The Bucs have some undersized defensive tackles, but they do have the speed in the secondary and linebacker units to make that part work.
If they don't, expect the Buc's defense to look more like the unit that finished out 2008 than the unit that started the year.
Why Bates will succeed
The defensive tackles weren't great at rushing the passer last year anyway, and are well suited to plug the gaps. The new starters at outside linebacker do a good job at funnelling the play to Barrett Rudd, who leads the division in tackles.
The secondary plays with discipline, keeping the play in front of them and preventing any big completions.
Why Bates will fail
The defensive tackles get blown off the ball and runs go up the middle, where Rudd gets tangled with the fullback far too often. On edge runs, good blocking receivers like Muhsin Muhammad and Roddy White help spring the backs off the edge, where coverage is thin, and the Bucs surrender far too many big plays.
Lack of leadership on defense results in a lack of cohesiveness, and the Bucs never come together on that side of the ball.
Three new coordinators, and three new defenses. They range from the complex to the unconventional to the simple.
The Saints have talent, and their talent is good between the ears. If the Saints stay healthy, they should show a dramatic improvement over 2008.
When the Panthers ran simple sets in 2008, they were a top five defense. Meeks will turn Peppers loose and stop dropping him in coverage, and he has an outstanding talent at MLB in Jon Beason. Expect a very big improvement in Carolina.
The Bucs have talent as well, in fact they may have the most talent on the defensive side of the ball. But it's young talent. They're solid in the secondary, but the line is just too small to stuff the interior run consistently.
Later in the season there's a big risk that they break down just as they did in 2008, and this team doesn't have the offense to overcome that if it happens.
All three teams believe they're on the right track, but how it plays out is anyone's guess.
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