We look back at Atlanta's worst games this year to see what weaknesses New England might exploit. Those weaknesses include pretty much everyone on defense, but is there a secret to stopping the Falcons offense?
01 Mar 2013
by Vince Verhei
There were 42 running backs with at least 100 carries in 2012, and among that group, Atlanta's Michael Turner ranked 41st in rushing DVOA. The Falcons' top rusher averaged only 3.6 yards per carry, and he fell below 4.0 yards per carry in 12 games, 13 including the playoffs. Atlanta was the league's worst team on short-yardage runs. By the end of the year it was clear that Turner was a liability. In two playoff games, Turner had just 22 carries, while backup Jacquizz Rodgers had 20. As a duo, they gained only 62 yards on 18 carries in the season-ending playoff loss to San Francisco.
Turner turned 31 just before Valentine's Day, which qualifies him for senior citizen status among NFL running backs. While a bounce-back season is still possible, it's nearly certain that his best days are behind him. Rodgers just turned 23, but it's not realistic that he'll be any kind of long-term solution at only 5-foot-6. No player that short in league history has ever gone over 1,000 yards on the ground, and since the 1970 merger with the AFL, only three have even managed 500 yards. Rodgers has 151 career NFL carries, and is averaging just 3.8 yards per rush.
There's no savior to be found in free agency, unless you think Rashard Mendenhall or Reggie Bush is capable of getting Atlanta over the hump. It's more likely that the team will target this position in the draft. Right now, it appears that only one running back (Alabama's Eddie Lacy) will go in the first round, and he'll probably be gone when Atlanta picks at 30. Would the Falcons consider trading up to get him? The last time they traded up in the draft they got Julio Jones, and that's worked out quite well.
Grabbing a new runner isn't Atlanta's top offseason priority. They risk losing important starters to free agency (Sam Baker, William Moore) or retirement (Tony Gonzalez), and keeping those hands on deck is Thomas Dimitroff's most critical task. As the roster currently stands, though, it's clear that the biggest hole is in the backfield.
The Panthers defense made giant strides last season, allowing 22.7 points per game, down from 26.8 points per game in 2011. There's still room for improvement, though, and most of it can occur up front. The Panthers were 23rd in FO's Adjusted Line Yards metric, which measures a defense's ability to prevent opponents from gaining consistent yards on the ground. They were also 23rd in short-yardage run defense, and 29th at stuffing opposing runners for a loss.
Carolina's primary starters at defensive tackle last season were a pair of journeymen named Edwards. 31-year-old Dwan Edwards was on his third team in four years. Ron Edwards, 33, is also on his third NFL team, and has missed 21 games in the past two years due to injuries. Dwan is entering free agency, while Ron has one more year left on his deal.
The top free agent at this position is probably Miami's Randy Starks, and while he'd be an upgrade, the Panthers would be wise to draft a tackle too. The Panthers have the 14th pick in the draft, and they'll certainly miss out on Utah's Star Lotulelei. (Unless his heart condition discovered at the combine scares teams off.) However, they could have their pick of Missouri's Sheldon Richardson, Florida's Sharrif Floyd, or North Carolina's Sylvester Williams.
One way or another, Carolina must get help for middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. The rookie was the only player in the league to make at least 20 percent of his team's defensive plays (tackles, assists, passes defensed) in 2012, and the Panthers can't let a star like this go to waste.
Let's not mince words here: The 2012 New Orleans Saints were a defensive disaster of historical proportions. They gave up a league-record 7,042 yards of total offense. Remarkably, they were last in the league in average yards allowed on both passing plays (7.4) and rushes (5.2). No doubt some of this mess can be blamed on the bounty scandal that saw defensive coordinator Gregg Williams kicked out of New Orleans and Steve Spagnuolo rushed in to take the job. Spagnuolo's defensive scheme was good enough to win a Super Bowl with the Giants, and though it was obviously a bad fit for the Saints roster, at some point the players must be held accountable for their own performance.
Regardless, it won't be Spagnuolo's job to fix things here. Rob Ryan has been hired to turn things around, and Saints coach Sean Payton has said he wants Ryan to run the 3-4 scheme he used as defensive coordinator for the Raiders, Browns, and Cowboys. The Saints' best front-seven players last season were linebacker Curtis Lofton and ends Cameron Jordan and Will Smith. It's hard to tell how those players will fare in a 3-4 look. Both Jordan and Smith go over 280 pounds, so it's hard to see either moving out to linebacker. As 3-4 ends, they'll have a hard time matching the combined 14 sacks the collected in 2012.
All is not rosy on the back end of the defense, either. Neither starting corner (Patrick Robinson and Jabari Greer) ranked among the top 70 players at his position in yards allowed per target in FO's charting numbers. Safety Roman Harper is 30 years old and could be cut to get the Saints under the salary cap.
It's going to be a transitional year for the New Orleans' defense, with plenty of new faces both in free agency and the draft. But it's likely they will improve (they can't get much worse, after all), and even a little improvement on defense could get them back in the playoff race.
Tampa Bay opponents threw the ball 627 times last season, more than any defense except Washington. Despite all those opportunities, they collected just 27 sacks. Only two teams put opposing quarterbacks on the ground less frequently. And six of those sacks, nearly a full quarter of their entire season's output, came in one game against Philadelphia (a game the Bucs lost, ironically). Michael Bennett led the team with nine sacks, which was not among the top 20 players in the NFL. He was the only Bucs player in the top 50.
The Bucs have tried to build their pass rush in the past, but it's been a failed effort. They added two defensive linemen in the first two rounds of the draft in both 2010 (Gerald McCoy and Brian Price) and 2011 (Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers). Though McCoy deserves credit for Tampa Bay's excellent run defense, those four players have just 24 career sacks between them. Price was traded to the Bears, who went on to cut him. Clayborn missed 13 games last year with a knee injury. And Bowers, who has come off the bench in 20 of his 26 career games and has only 4.5 career sacks, was just arrested on gun charges. His future is uncertain.
The good news for Tampa Bay is that defensive end is one of the deeper positions in this draft. Texas A&M's Damontre Moore, Florida State's Bjoern Werner, or LSU's Barkevious Mingo could find themselves in a pewter helmet when the Bucs make the 13th selection.
(This article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)
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