Four Downs: NFC South

Four Downs: NFC South

by Robert Weintraub

Atlanta Falcons: Can Dunta Robinson improve in coverage?

Atlanta filled a gaping hole at defensive end with free agent Ray Edwards. If he provides the pass rush expected of him (16.5 sacks in the last two seasons), the Falcons’ pass defense will improve noticeably. Steady pressure and the ability to take blockers off John Abraham will be a welcome development from the signing, high sack totals for Edwards would be gravy.

But Edwards isn’t exactly DeMarcus Ware, and even if he was, the secondary play in Atlanta needs to get better if they are to get past teams with top quarterbacks at the helm (see: Packers 48, Falcons 21 last January). Brent Grimes, who turned in a stellar 2010, signed his free agent tender and is back in the fold, so the onus falls on the marquee free-agent signing of last offseason, Dunta Robinson, to lift his play somewhere near Grimes’ level.

Robinson played mostly man-to-man coverage in Houston, and he struggled to pick up some of defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder’s zone schemes a year ago. Undoubtedly, the pressure of returning to his native state and making a ton of cash to do so (he signed a $57 million contract, $22.5 of that guaranteed) had an effect. Now that the "prove you’re worth the price" focus is on Edwards and rookie Julio Jones, perhaps Robinson can relax and raise his game. He’s never going to be a shutdown guy, but Robinson figures to get targeted more this season, albeit perhaps not as much as Grimes, who was thrown at 124 times in 2010, second in the NFL. If Robinson can make some plays, opposing quarterbacks will be in a quandary about which corner to pick on.

New Orleans Saints: Can any of the linebackers cover?

The Saints have done a solid job in identifying weaknesses and addressing them this offseason. The interior run defense needed bulking up, so widebodies Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin were signed. Pass rush off the edge was a major concern, so the Saints drafted Cameron Jordan in the first round. The departure of veteran center Jonathan Goodwin was counteracted by the import of the even more veteran Olin Kreutz.

But one area in dire need of upgrade remains a question mark. In 2010, New Orleans struggled mightily in covering tight ends and running backs, ranking 27th and 24th in the NFL, respectively, in DVOA on passes to those positions. Much of that falls on the inability of the linebackers to cover in space. Outside of middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, the unit is below par in coverage. Scott Shanle was re-signed despite his struggles in this area, and will battle Jonathan Casillas for the starting role. Casillas is coming off Lisfranc surgery, so his ability to improve pass defense on the weak side is questionable at best.

On the strong side, Danny Clark, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, and rookie Martez Wilson are battling for snaps. None of them are especially nimble in coverage, though of course the jury is still out on Wilson. The wild card to watch is Will Herring, a free agent signed away from Seattle. Herring could take over as the starting SAM backer, or at least play the position on passing downs, due to his fluidity in space.

Carolina Panthers: Will opponents triple-cover Smith?

Cam Newton will be Carolina's starting quarterback, if not in Week 1, then shortly afterward. However, given the state of the Panthers receiving corps, Newton might want to keep a death grip on that clipboard. Outside of the perennially disgruntled-yet-talented Steve Smith, no wideout on the Panthers roster is likely to keep opposing defensive backs awake at night.

Our KUBIAK fantasy football projection system currently has Smith catching as many passes for as many yards as the rest of the wide receiver corps combined. David Gettis and Brandon LaFell showed promise in 2010, but the John Fox administration and Smith himself voiced frustration at their lack of drive and desire for improvement. It wasn’t a good sign that vet Legedu Naanee was signed to bolster the unit -- it was clearly a move designed to light a fire under Gettis and LaFell rather than one based on Naanee’s merits as a player. Armanti Edwards, the college quarterback the Panthers traded up to take in the third round last year, then deactivated for 12 games, will also get a shot at redemption. Now all he has to do is learn how to catch and run routes.

It’s a cliche to say that a good tight end is a young quarterback’s best friend, but it seems like Carolina is buying high on that found knowledge. The new offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinski, is a former tight ends coach. Two fellow University of Miami alums, Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen, have been brought in to give Newton a security blanket. Both Shockey and Olsen have the ability to stretch the field deep, and Chudzinski spent the last two seasons in San Diego watching the effect Antonio Gates had on an offense. Neither Panther import is Gates, but they are closer to him than the secondary Panthers receivers are to Malcolm Floyd and Patrick Crayton. On the plus side, Legedu Naanee is fairly comparable to former Chargers receiver Legedu Naanee.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Will they regret cutting Barrett Ruud loose?

In the long run, probably not. Barrett Ruud made a large number of plays for Tampa, but advanced metrics show he had a rather poor 2010, especially against the run (he was the 105th ranked linebacker in Yards per Run Tackle, at 4.8 per carry against). The fact the Titans only signed him to a one-year deal reveals Ruud’s value in the marketplace.

But in the short term, with Bucs fans charged up over last year’s 10-6 and with powerful Atlanta and New Orleans in the division, having an experienced leader of the defense wearing pewter would seem to be important. Even if it is just an average player like Ruud. Instead, the Bucs appear ready to go to battle with either second-year man Tyrone McKenzie, who had all of five tackles in 2010, or rookie Mason Foster, a third-round choice out of Washington.

General manager Mark Dominik has proven his preference for young, cheap players time and again, and the strategy has mostly worked. In this case, the mike linebacker situation will be strongly impacted by the play, and health, of high 2010 draftee tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price up front. McCoy lost three games to an arm injury last season (and left an early Bucs practice with a shoulder ding), while Price missed all but five games with a nasty pelvic injury that required two surgeries and the insertion of several screws. Add the health concerns of 2011 top choices Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn, along with the legal limbo of cornerback/scofflaw Aqib Talib, and the Bucs already had plenty of question marks on defense. By letting Ruud walk, they added another.

(This article previously appeared at ESPN Insider.)


9 comments, Last at 15 Feb 2013, 6:06am

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

No doubt that Rodgers carved up Atlanta that game, but was Dunta really the problem there?

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

I don't really follow Tampa Bay, but it seemed recently that Ruud was considered an up and coming MLB with probowls to follow shortly. What happened to him? Did he just not ever get better, or did he get worse?

Also, it seems a little strange for Tampa to release him now. Shouldn't they make sure his replacement is definitely better before cutting him loose?

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Ruud's contract was up, he wasn't released. He's a bit undersized but fast and smart (i.e., a Tampa-2 MLB), but he's not exactly a wrap-up tackler, and he's had a couple of less than impressive years. Back in 2007-2008, he was looking to be an utter stud, but he's been pushed around pretty consistently the last few years and just hasn't made much in the way of "splash" plays. To be fair, it's not like there's been much in the way of a d-line to soak up blockers.

That being said, I'd like the Bucs to have offered him that one-year deal instead of Tennessee, but the front office has been really down on him for the last few years. Considering how well they've done at evaluating players recently, I'm trying to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one. Maybe he's a jerk in the locker room or something.

I'm considerably more distressed at Cadillac Williams leaving Tampa, really; the guy obviously doesn't have the burst he had before his knees exploded, but he's a phenomenal blocker, excellent receiver, and does all the little things that don't show up on a stat sheet. He'd be in the backfield communicating with Freeman last year making sure everybody knew who the blitzers were, and he was incredibly helpful. I think he played a significantly bigger part of last season's success than he'll get credit for, because he was one of those "did all the little things" guys.

4 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

He just never developed. He posts high tackle totals every year, but they're rarely stuffs and there's no oomph to his hits. He's decent enough in coverage and apparently does a good job of calling the defense, but the organization had seen enough of him to conclude that they could do better. Ruud felt that he'd been here long enough and played well enough to warrant a big money, multi-year contract, and I seriously doubt his pride would let him sign another one-year deal. There's also no point in him doing so. It might be nice for the team to have him back, but why on Earth would he want to spend another year of his prime playing for a team that clearly has no intention of ever signing him long-term? Might as well hit the market now. Even if he only gets the same one-year contract the Bucs were offering him, which he did, he's far more likely to sell himself to a new organization than to change the minds of the team he's played for for the last six years.

He's clearly not a jerk, though. I think you can just kind of look at him and tell he's a nice guy, but beyond that several teammates have come out on their own and expressed their support and hope that the team would bring him back. I don't remember anyone ever doing that for Sabby Piscitelli or Joey Galloway.

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

When was this article written? The Saints waived Danny Clark last week and Jo-Lonn Dunbar is backing up Vilma at MLB, not vying to start on the strongside.

7 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

I think Thurs. 11th of August was when it was up on ESPN. It was written before they waived Clark, although I think it was posted on ESPN Insider the same day the team let him go. I don't know how early they send them to ESPN before they're posted, but I'm betting it's less than 24 hrs between its actual writing and its posting on ESPN.

8 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

I have to agree with MilkMan Danimal's comments about Cad.

He was all but playing QB last season as Freeman's backfield lieutenant, identifying the D and passing on blitz coverages to his QB.

However the presence of Cad or Blount in the backfield pretty much signalled our playcalling to the D and eventually Freeman was going to have to stand on his own two feet.

Early signs are that he is ready, but we'll see...

9 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

thanks for this very nice