Sep 22, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton calls plays in the first quarter of their game against the Arizona Cardinals at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

NFC South: Team Grades After Month One

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Now that all the teams have had four games to gauge their progress (well, three in the case of the Panthers in the NFC South), we have a pretty good idea of what direction the teams are heading. Here, we’ll look at the big picture view and grade each team thus far vs. expectations going into the 2013 season:

New Orleans Saints (4-0): A+
Offense: A (4th)
Defense: A (6th)

Let’s face it – the NFL wanted to send a message last season as “Bountygate” happened right in the middle of all the new emphasis placed on player safety. There were a TON of negative “synergies” last year for the club, including being forced to use Steve Spagnuolo as the “acting” head coach for games until Joe Witt’s suspension ran out.

The result was rather predictable. Spagnuolo led the St. Louis Rams to the top pick and Sam Bradford a few years back, and that’s not a distinction ANY head coach would want, despite the influx of the top talent in the draft. It means the coach didn’t do a very good job, and in his case, was fired. Hired in New Orleans to lead the defense, last year’s Saints set the record for futility on defense – Spagnuolo’s specialty.

That, combined with his failure in St. Louis and the defensive players complaining after the fact that his coaching style was too rigid and didn’t allow for input from players on the field accelerated his downfall. Now that the Mad Genius, Sean Payton, is back at the helm and they have a new defensive coordinator in Rob Ryan, the team is playing as well as anyone in the entire league…except for perhaps the Denver Broncos.

Aug 22, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) tackles Baltimore Ravens running back Bernard Pierce (30) in the second quarter at M

Carolina Panthers (1-2): C
offense: D (25th)
defense: B+ (10th)

The good thing is that the top two picks of their draft, both defensive tackles, are so far everything they’d been advertised to be, and more. Star Lotulelei is playing as well as any rookie defender and has a good shot (if things continue) to follow in Luke Kuechly’s cleats as the 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year. He’s stout against the run and can help collapse the pocket in the middle on passing plays. Can’t ask for much more. Kawann Short is playing well coming in off the bench in rotation with D’Wan Edwards and picked up a sack against the New York Giants a week and a half ago.

The bad is that in the early going, they’ve shown the same tendencies to not close out games and/or give up leads in the 4th quarter to lose like they have in the last couple of years. Granted, they annihilated the New York Giants last week, but the Giants are playing as poorly as anyone in the NFL. In fact, they just traded with the Panthers to get LB Jon Beason as Chase Blackburn takes the starting role in Charlotte.

It’s not JUST the 1-2 start that earns them a “meh” grade…it’s the manner in which they lost them. As things wound up, their bye week might actually have come at a crucial time. I generally despise early bye weeks because the later ones help give the injured that extra week of healing, and the Panthers may find it difficult to carry over that momentum from the Giants’ win through their bye week, but it’s an opportunity for the coaching staff to say “Hey, guys! You remember all those things we’ve been stressing to you? You did it against the Giants and look what happened! Keep pouring it on, guys, we can DO this!”

Well, with the Saints making victory looking easy, they’re going to be a hard team to catch up to in the standings. However, with the issues on the offensive line and thin depth at WR, Ron Rivera is going to need to lean on that top-ten defense to hold the games close and hope Cam Newton can continue his high QB rating in the 4th quarter to win them some games. Also, some more aggressive play calling here and there would go a long way into shedding some of their tendencies and force defensive coordinators to consider a lot more things. For instance, if it’s 2nd and goal, especially inside the 10 but outside the 1, you can BANK ON THEM CALLING A QB DRAW. They need to work in a short play-action pass to make defenders take a false step – enough room to get that pass completed and waltz in to score. the offense has been vanilla, largely predictable, and without a real dynamic overall group at the skill positions, you need every edge you can get.

Aside from a decent game against a tattered defense in the Giants, the Carolina offense has mightily struggled. Their bye week actually does come at the perfect time for them in their situation.

Aug 8, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons running back Steven Jackson (39) runs out on the field before the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Falcons (1-3): D
offense: B (7th)
defense: F (28th)

This team’s status was probably the easiest to predict, but one of the hardest to believe would occur. The offense has the usual suspects – Matt Ryan, Gonzo, Roddy, Julio, and added Steven Jackson to give the backfield that receiving threat that Michael Turner never was. An injury to Jackson has kept him out for a couple of weeks and promises a couple more, and durability had been his career hallmark. Both Roddy White and Julio Jones have been dinged up, limiting their effectiveness – especially that of White. While the team can still move the ball (7th in the NFL in total yards), they don’t seem to be the fearsome unit they were a year ago.

Defensively, they’re missing DE John Abraham, and added Osi Umenyiora to replace his pass rushing. Four games later, they have only seven sacks – the same number the Panthers had against the Giants alone – and for a team that usually plays with a lead, they HAVE to get pressure on enemy QBs or get into shootouts that they don’t want to get into, unlike the Saints.

Remember those Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts teams of the recent past that couldn’t stop the run? The reason there was they were built to stop the PASS and pressure the QB. Two names linked in NFL lore will ALWAYS be Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis – their jobs were to attack the QB while Manning worked a lead. Teams had to play catch-up and wouldn’t run much after the first quarter anyway. That’s the sort of defense a team like the Falcons needs. At the very least, they need pass-rushers and the cupboard is bare.

Sep 29, 2013; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon (8) throws the ball during the first half against the Arizona Cardinals at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-4): F
offense: F (31st)
defense: B (12th)

Ohhh boy. Where to begin here? In two weeks, starting QB Josh Freeman went from starter, to missing a team photo, to losing his job to rookie QB Mike Glennon, to even having his medical records leaked by someone and finally being released. THAT is also another story in itself, and appears to be an “inside job” (on the medical records being leaked). Head Coach Greg Schiano may be on the hottest seat in the division suddenly as grumblings are coming from players that he may be losing the locker room. Once a coach loses the locker room, he’s toast. Finished. Sayonara. Adios.

As one player recently colorfully put it, “We’ve got too much (darn) TALENT on this team to be 0-4.” I think that says it all, but the issues with this team run deep and will not easily be fixed. Glennon has weapons around him but will go through growing pains that almost all rookie NFL QBs go through, and the team is four games out of first place after four games being played in a division that offers no easy wins – for anyone against anyone.

The defense has been playing well enough to win, but the offense has been SO bad that even a good defensive effort in (pick a game) wasn’t enough to win. Schiano’s got a mess on his hands and October should tell us if he can right the ship or if he’ll wind up walking the plank.

On balance, and given the fact the Panthers have started the season 1-2 AND IN SECOND PLACE means that if they can get their act together, hold the defense’s feet to the fire and have them perform at a high level week in and week out, they WILL have chances to win ball games that perhaps they shouldn’t. It also means that right now, they’re sitting in the best spot in the division for a Wild Card spot, depending on how everyone else in the league finishes as well.

It’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that they could beat the Saints twice, tall order that it might be, and in doing so would give them the tiebreaker edge via head-to-head match-up. The problem that I saw since the start of the season IS those Tampa Bay Bucs – I said if you don’t catch this team early in the season, they could be a monster to play if they have their act together.

It’s early, of course, but the Carolina Panthers are in the thick of things and that’s all anyone could realistically ask of them. Now it’s up to Ron Rivera and his coaching staff to continue to work on Cam’s issues – throwing off his back foot and staring down his receivers are his two main bugaboos – and keep coaching up that young front-seven and challenging them to improve every game. With the talent they have there, NO opponent looks forward to facing them.

Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye

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