Spagnuolo was a great hire but do Saints the have enough pieces on defense?

Steve Spagnuolo proved in St. Louis that he was overmatched as a head coach but there’s no denying that he’s one hell of a defensive coordinator. That’s why the New Orleans Saints did well to replace Gregg Williams with Spagnuolo when their coordinator position became open last January.

But do the Saints have enough pieces on defense to make Spagnuolo’s scheme work?

Make no mistake, Spagnuolo’s defense has more depth, is more creative, and is more versatile than the one Williams developed over his three-plus decades of coaching. Spags is a disciple of the late Jim Johnson, who was a blitz-happy playcaller but he also played with discipline on the backend.

That’s why New Orleans fans should take comfort in the fact that Spagnuolo will keep the Saints aggressive while also implementing more zone coverage in the secondary. Instead of almost irresponsibly blitzing defenders like Williams, Spags will bring a more calculated approach to his play designs.

That said, you have to wonder whether or not Spagunolo has enough to work with. Leading pass rusher Will Smith has been suspended four games for his role in the team’s bounty scandal and Curtis Lofton, one of the Saints’ free agent signings this offseason, doesn’t have the same coverage skills as Jonathan Vilma (suspended for an entire year).

Can the Saints generate enough pressure with their front four in order for Spags’ defense to be effective? Safety Roman Harper recorded nine sacks last season but if Spagnuolo plans to run a lot of zone, Harper will likely remain in coverage. Junior Galette finished with four sacks last season but he’s only a situational pass rusher and Sedrick Ellis has been a major disappointment since the team selected him with the seventh overall pick in the 2008 draft.

The Rams weren’t very good under Spagnuolo the past three years but one thing they could do was get after the quarterback. Chris Long finished with 13 sacks last season while James Hall and Robert Quinn each had six apiece.

But all three of those players were able to rush the quarterback starting with their hand in the dirt, just like Osi Umenyiora, Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck were able to do while Spags was the defensive coordinator in New York. His schemes work best when the front four is able to generate pressure on its own, which is why he potentially has a problem in New Orleans.

While Williams was able to generate pressure from the secondary, that’s not the way Spagnuolo runs his defense. The Saints simply lack that premier pass rusher and unless 2011 first-round pick Cam Jordan is ready to take the next step in his development, New Orleans could struggle in Spags’ first season as DC.

That’s not to say that Spagnuolo isn’t creative enough to find other avenues to get after the quarterback but Saint fans may have to exercise patience when it comes to their new defensive coordinator. He was an excellent hire but every coach needs the pieces in order for their scheme to work.

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The Eagles are primed for a bounce back year but title run is on Vick’s shoulders

Want one team that missed the playoffs last year but is bound to crack the postseason in 2012? Look no further than the Philadelphia Eagles.

After opening their checkbook last season for free agents Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins and Ronnie Brown, a lot of pundits just assumed that the Eagles would win the NFC East. But the team lost four of its first five games and despite a strong second-half run that saw them win four straight, the Eagles missed the postseason after finishing 8-8.

But Asomugha is primed for a bounce back, defensive coordinator Juan Castillo will be more comfortable calling plays in his second year and the offense is still chockfull of playmakers.

Thus, there’s little doubt that Eagles will give opponents fits again in 2012.

Their biggest problem remains Michael Vick, who had a very average third season in Philadelphia. He threw for 3,303 yards, 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions while compiling a QB rating of 84.9. He also only played in 13 games after starting just 12 in 2010.

The Eagles will only go as far as Vick takes them. As most have pointed ad nauseam, he’s immensely talented and capable of winning games with his feet or the rocket he calls for a left arm. But only once in his career has he ever played a full 16-game schedule (that was in 2006) and only once has he completed over 60 percent of his passes (2010, his second year with the Eagles).

If you look at last year’s numbers, seven quarterbacks who finished in the top 12 when it came to completion percentage made the playoffs. In 2010, eight of the top 12 most accurate signal callers led their teams to a postseason berth, including Vick, who finished 10th in that category.

Tim Tebow is the exception to the rule. Everyone saw what happened last year when the Broncos defense didn’t shut an opponent out for three and a half quarters. The majority of the time, quarterbacks have to be able to complete 60-percent of their passes to win in the NFL.

People become transfixed by Vick’s ability to beat teams with his legs but if he’s going to carry this talented Philadelphia team deep into the playoffs, then he has to be able to win with his arm. He did so in 2010 before he ran into the buzz saw that was the Green Bay Packers and he’ll need to do it again before Andy Reid starts looking at other quarterbacks to run his offense. Say what you will about Reid, but he knows when a player’s best days are behind him (just ask Donovan McNabb).

Granted, there are a lot of facets that play into whether or not a team will be successful. The offensive line has to protect Vick when he’s in the pocket, Jackson can’t disappear for games on end and the defense has to play like it did in the second half of last year – not the first half.

But there’s no question that this Eagles team is primed for a bounce back year and should make the playoffs in 2012. That said, they’ve met their ceiling. If Vick can’t stay healthy and accurate when he does play, then we won’t see this Philadelphia team in the Super Bowl. He’s only one man but Philly’s championship hopes rest on Vick.

After a productive offseason, Bucs should compete in 2012

There’s reason to believe that the 2011 season was the true aberration for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – not 2010.

Behind the solid play of quarterback Josh Freeman, the Bucs won 10 games in 2010 only to transform into a laughingstock in 2011. Led by the usually cheap Malcolm Glazer, Tampa Bay kicked off the 2011 season by making punter Michael Koenen their prized free agent piece. The Glazers clearly assumed that they could win with the same roster they had in 2010 and the plan backfired in their faces.

First round pick Adrian Clayborn turned out to be a stud but the defense as a whole was horrific, finishing 21st in pass defense, 30th in overall defense and dead last in run defense. The Bucs also allowed 30.9 points per game, which was most by any team in the NFL.

The offense wasn’t much better, finishing 16th in passing yards per game, 30th in rushing and 21st overall. Their 17.9 points per game average was the sixth fewest by any team in the league.

But thanks to a successful offseason, the Bucs have bounced back.

It’s not known whether Greg Schiano will be a successful NFL head coach but there’s little doubt that he’ll bring toughness and discipline to a team that was lacking in each category last season. The Glazers also surprised by breaking out their checkbook in order to sign free agents Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Eric Wright. The team’s most underrated move was bringing back defensive end Michael Bennett, who was solid in all facets of the game last season.

The Bucs’ draft was a success, too. Mark Barron is best when playing in the box but thanks to Nick Saban’s tutelage, he can hold his own in coverage as well. Trading back into the first round in order to select Boise State running back Doug Martin was also solid as he’ll force LeGarrette Blount to be a more rounded player if he hopes to get carries in Schiano’s offense. Linebacker Lavonte David was a first-round talent that the Bucs drafted in the second round, while sixth-round pick Keith Tandy is a physical cornerback who could push for playing time down the road.

Assuming the Saints re-sign Drew Brees, they’re still the class of the NFC South but the bounty scandal has left them without a head coach for the entire year, as well as several players for the first few weeks of the season. The Falcons will be good again but the Bucs always seem to give Atlanta trouble (especially in Tampa Bay) and the Panthers are a couple of defensive pieces shy from competing for a playoff spot.

Thus, the division is wide open this year. Granted, Jackson and Nicks have to stay motivated after signing long-term deals, Freeman has to bounce back from a rocky 2011 performance, and Schiano has to prove himself in the ultra-competitive NFL. But this is a team that has significantly upgraded their roster in just one offseason. So much so that they could contend for a division title this season.

Falcons’ Mike Smith long overdue to unleash Matt Ryan, passing game

First came the decision to trade five selections in order to move up in the 2011 NFL Draft for receiver Julio Jones.

Then players and media members used words like “explosiveness” to describe their offense.

Then came the fizzle.

Mike Smith is 43-21 as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. With the exception of Dan Reeves, who led the Falcons to their first and only Super Bowl appearance, Smith is the best coach the team has had in its 46-year history. His players love to play for him and he’s brought stability to a franchise that has long lacked consistency at the head coach position.

But if he doesn’t tweak his overall philosophy when it comes to the Falcons offense, he will become the modern day version of Marty Schottenheimer – if he hasn’t already.

Like Smith, Schottenheimer used to stockpile victories during the regular season. But because he was unwilling to change his style when it came to coaching in the postseason, he never won anything of substance. He was 5-13 in the postseason with no Super Bowl appearances and nary a conference title to call his own.

Smith is 0-3 in the playoffs with two utterly embarrassing performances by his team the last two years. The Packers drubbed the Falcons 48-21 at the Georgia Dome two seasons ago and the Giants shut Atlanta down 24-2 on their way to a Super Bowl victory last year.

At the root of the Falcons’ postseason failures is a lack of creativity on Smith’s part. Some have suggested Matt Ryan doesn’t have what it takes to win in big games but the fault doesn’t lie in the quarterback, it lies in the overall mentality of the head coach.

The Falcons wanted to beat the Giants on the ground last year because New York was brutal against the run during the regular season. It wasn’t a bad idea but when the Giants bottled up Michael Turner, the Falcons didn’t have a Plan B in place. That falls on Smith, who remains hamstrung by his philosophy that in order to win the NFL, you must grind down the clock, keep the game close, and win in the end. That ideology may work in the regular season against inferior opponents but when a team like the Packers doesn’t mind throwing the ball 40 times in order to beat you, being able to run the ball becomes irrelevant.

Part of the Falcons problem was former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who is now the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Ryan has developed into a slow starter over the years but Mularkey was hesitant to put his quarterback in the no-huddle, which often got Ryan into a good rhythm. Mularkey would waste a full quarter of ineffective play from his offense before he got into his no-huddle attack. Whether that was because of Smith’s conservatism or Mularkey’s unwillingness to allow Ryan to call the shots is not known outside of Atlanta. But either way, it was shocking that the Falcons didn’t use the no-huddle more last season.

In steps new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who was limited in Jacksonville because of the lack of weapons at his disposal (save for Maurice Jones-Drew, that is). Koetter is a gifted playcaller and has already said that he will install the no-huddle for Ryan, who could benefit from having someone other than Mularkey put game plans together. The hope is that a creative play-caller like Koetter is the missing piece.

But everything comes back to Smith, who ultimately decides what kind of philosophy his team will have on Sundays. The Falcons ranked eighth in the league in passing yards per game last season so this isn’t about stats – it’s about a mentality. Will Smith allow Koetter to design his game plans around Ryan instead of Turner? Will he allow the Falcons to actually use the assortment of weapons (Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, Harry Douglas, etc.) that they have in their arsenal? Will Smith finally allow the Falcons to shake hands with the present day NFL and become a team that beats opponents through the air?

If he doesn’t, Smith’s list of critics will grow by leaps and bounds. His job is safe for now but he must change his ways in order for this talented Falcons team to reach its full potential. Ryan was maxed out in Mularkey’s run-first offense but he still has untapped potential as the architect of a fast-paced attack. It’s just a matter of whether or not Smith will take the chains off.

If he doesn’t, the new “Martyball” will become entrenched in Atlanta.

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