NFC South Spin cycle: Saints defense still needs to tighten up

Dan Parr
Saints fire Spagnuolo, Flajole

It's all smiles in the NFC South after the Saints, Falcons, Panthers and Buccaneers each earned a victory in Week Nine. Here's our take on the division's teams midway through the season.


What we learned: The Saints’ defense is going to have to play better than it did on Monday night to make the kind of run the team needs to get back into the playoff picture. New Orleans held the Eagles to 13 points, sacked Michael Vick seven times and returned an interception 99 yards for a touchdown, but the “D” was gashed for 221 yards rushing on 29 carries (7.6-yard average). The Saints allowed DeSean Jackson to break free for a 77-yard TD. If not for the Eagles’ sloppiness, this game may have turned out differently because the Saints are still a poor tackling team.

What’s in store next: If the Saints don’t win in Week 10, it might be the closest the team gets to a playoff atmosphere this season. The Saints are the last team to defeat the Falcons in the regular season — they did so Dec. 26, 2011 — and they will have the golden opportunity to become the first team to beat the Falcons this season when they host their NFC South rival on Sunday. The Saints have dominated the series, winning 10 of their past 12 games against Atlanta, but the two clubs moved in very different directions in the first half of the season.

What the heck? It’s hard not to wonder what Chris Ivory might be if he had a chance to play a bigger role on offense and was able to stay healthy. It’s also easy to see why the Saints didn’t trade him before the deadline. With Darren Sproles inactive Monday night, Ivory had an opportunity to get involved on offense for the first time this season and he responded by leading the Saints in rushing (10-48-1). In his three-year career, Ivory has produced a 5.0 yards-per-carry average on 226 carries.


What we learned: You can’t say the Falcons’ defense is simply opportunistic anymore. They did not force a turnover in either of the past two games — which were against two of the league’s most turnover-prone QBs this season (Michael Vick and Tony Romo) — but they still managed to hold the Eagles and Cowboys to 30 points combined. The Falcons held the Cowboys to 13 points on a night where they were without one of their top defensive players, WLB Sean Weatherspoon, and were credited with hitting Romo only once all game. There is no doubt Mike Smith and Mike Nolan want to see the “D” get back to taking the ball away, but their defense is becoming very tough to move the ball against.

What’s in store next: The rivalry is at least a bit watered down this season because of the Saints’ struggles, but the Falcons should be prepared for the Saints’ best shot — New Orleans has a chance to be the first team to beat Atlanta, and the game will be played at the Superdome, where the Falcons have compiled a 1-5 record in their last six visits. Falcons QB Matt Ryan has a 2-5 record in his seven career starts against the Saints, but their defense has been historically poor to this point. The last time the Falcons played at the Superdome, they were demolished in a 45-16 rout. Drew Brees broke Dan Marino’s record for passing yards in a season that night. Don’t think the Falcons won’t use revenge for a little extra motivation this time.

What the heck? It’s probably a safe bet that special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong will have a chat with CB-PR Dominique Franks at some point Monday or in the next couple days if he has not already done so. Franks returned two punts for six yards on Sunday, but on one return that was nullified by a player-out-of-bounds penalty on Dallas, Franks tried to return a punt he fielded at Atlanta’s 3-yard line with the coverage unit descending upon him. He tried another dangerous return off a ball that had bounced up in the air with Dallas defenders around him. He made some very questionable decisions Sunday and the Falcons were fortunate they did not come back to haunt them.


What we learned: The Panthers are not going to lie down. At 1-6, the writing was clearly on the wall for the Panthers heading into Sunday’s game, and it would have been easy for them to put forth a clunker performance coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Bears in Week Eight. They have blown leads this season, but the Panthers held on vs. the Redskins on the road Sunday, which is a step in the right direction, albeit one that appears to be way too late for them to rekindle their playoff hopes. The Panthers snapped a five-game losing streak with the 21-13 victory.

What’s in store next: A familiar face will be on the visitor’s sideline Sunday in Charlotte when the Broncos, winners of three in a row and four of their last five games, meet the Panthers. It will be Broncos head coach John Fox’s return to the city he called home from 2002-10 as Carolina’s head coach. It also will be Panthers head coach Ron Rivera’s first head-to-head matchup with his predecessor. The Broncos’ offense is humming heading into Week 10 — the team has scored 33.3 points per game during its winning streak — and Rivera’s defense, which has been very solid of late (holding opposing offenses to 19 points or less in each of the past four games) is in for one of its toughest tests of the season against QB Peyton Manning.

What the heck? No need to adjust your TV or computer screens — yes, that was the much-maligned WR Armanti Edwards making an 82-yard catch and run off a deep pass from QB Cam Newton in the fourth quarter. It set up a Panthers TD, which put them ahead 21-6. Edwards is a third-year veteran, but his lone career reception before Sunday was a 12-yarder in Week Four vs. Atlanta. Former GM Marty Hurney took heat for trading a 2011 second-round pick (which ended up being the 33rd overall pick) to draft Edwards in the third round in 2010, and he has been rumored to be on the chopping block with the Panthers on the verge of activating WR David Gettis from the PUP list. His future may be uncertain, but Edwards at least has one highlight on his résumé now.


What we learned: Tampa Bay is one of the league’s most explosive offenses, and it’s going to have to remain that way for the Bucs to keep winning. Defensively, this team is still very vulnerable vs. the pass. It allowed 32 points to a Raiders team that had no semblance of a running game (11 carries for 22 yards) Sunday. Obviously, RB Doug Martin is going to slow down from the pace he has kept up for the past two games, but as long as QB Josh Freeman keeps taking care of the ball (one interception in the past four games), the Bucs, who are 4-4 and still alive in the NFC wild-card race, are going to be a tough opponent.

What’s in store next: The Bucs will host another team that fought its way to the .500 mark and put itself in the thick of the playoff hunt at the midway point of the season. The Chargers were able to feast on the Chiefs, just as the Bucs did a few weeks earlier, in Week Nine, but they are 0-2 against NFC South teams after falling to the Falcons and Saints. The Bucs, on the other hand, are 2-0 against AFC West teams. Bucs WR Vincent Jackson is having a career year in his first season with a team other than the Chargers, who allowed him to depart in free agency after seven seasons, and this will be his first opportunity to battle his old club.

What the heck? Freeman nearly managed to give the game away in the fourth quarter Sunday. He and LeGarrette Blount were unable to complete a simple handoff, resulting in a fumble recovered by the Raiders, who converted the turnover into a TD, trimming the Bucs’ lead to three. On Tampa Bay’s next possession, Freeman was flagged twice in a row for delay of game. On one occasion it appeared an official might have contributed to Freeman’s confusion before the snap, but the penalties were very costly, pushing the Bucs into a 3rd-and-21 they failed to convert. If not for Carson Palmer's late picks and Doug Martin’s heroics, Freeman might have become one of the goats of the game.