Williamson's Look Around The League: NFC South

Atlanta Falcons (Last year's record: 7-10)

  • The Steelers will travel to Atlanta in Week 13 to take on the Falcons in a 1 p.m. start time on December 4th.
  • Only six offenses last year produced fewer points per game than Atlanta and just five teams had more turnovers than the Falcons. Atlanta only had three or more wide receivers on the field 33% of the time last year. Just one team used three or more wide outs less. The Falcons led the league in frequency of throwing to tight end and frequency throwing to running backs. In the past five years, the Falcons have used the five of their six first round picks on an offensive player, including Drake London this year to pair with Kyle Pitts, their first rounder from last year. But 2018 first round pick Calvin Ridley is suspended for the entire season. The Falcons will have a new quarterback for the first time in a long time after trading Matt Ryan to Indianapolis. Atlanta signed Marcus Mariota in free agency and drafted Desmond Ridder in the third round. From a salary cap perspective, only two teams (including the Steelers) have less salary cap space dedicated to their offense this year than Atlanta.
  • Atlanta had the NFL's worst pass-rush last year. They sacked opposing quarterbacks just 18 times. To put that in perspective, the Eagles were second worst and still racked up 29 sacks. TJ Watt had 22.5 sacks himself in 2021. Only the Lions and Jets gave up more points per game than Atlanta's defense. The Falcons played zero snaps of dime defense with six defensive backs on the field last year, which is extremely rare in today's NFL.
  • Atlanta's sack differential was -22. Even though Atlanta won seven of their 17 games played last year, they still had the fifth worst scoring differential in the league. They often lost big and when they won, it was by narrow margins. Their seven wins were by a combined 32 points.

Carolina Panthers (Last year's record: 5-12)

  • On December 18th at 1 p.m., the Steelers play at Carolina in Week 15.
  • The Panthers offense produced just 4.6 yards per play. That was the lowest in the league. Three offenses manufactured fewer points per game even though just the Vikings had more offensive drives per game. The Panthers only produced points on 30.1% of those drive opportunities, fourth lowest in the NFL. The Panthers quarterbacks were sacked 52 times, fifth most in the league. The Giants were the only team to turn the ball over more than Carolina. Over the past two seasons, the Panthers have had Christian McCaffrey for a total of just 10 games. After going three straight years of drafting defense in the first round, Carolina used the sixth overall pick to help their offensive line, drafting Ikem Ekwonu. The Panthers also signed Austin Corbitt and Bradley Bozeman, giving them presumably three new starting offensive linemen. But the biggest move of the Panthers offseason was their recent trade for Baker Mayfield, who should have a leg up to being the Week 1 starting quarterback. This offense should look much different this year and probably, much improved.
  • On defense, only the Bills and Browns allowed fewer yards per play than Carolina. But the Panthers did lose Hasson Reddick to the Eagles and Stephon Gilmore to the Colts. Only two teams have less salary cap space dedicated to their defense than Carolina that have some excellent young players on their first contract such as Jaycee Horn, Jeremy Chinn, Shaq Thompson, and Brian Burns.
  • Even though Carolina was elite on defense in yards allowed per play, their differential was still ninth worst in the league because their production of offense. And on a per game basis, the Panthers gave up 5.9 more points than they scored. Carolina's -13 turnover differential was only better than the Jaguars. The Panthers finished their 2021 season on a seven-game losing streak and won just two games after Week 3. Carolina has won five games in each of the past three seasons.

New Orleans Saints (Last year's record: 9-8)

  • On November 13th, the Saints will be in town for a 1 p.m. Week 10 matchup against the Steelers.
  • The Saints were one of seven offenses to average less than five yards per play in 2021. But only five teams had fewer turnovers than New Orleans. The Saints passed the ball just 51.5% of their snaps, making them the NFL's third most run-oriented offense behind Philadelphia and Tennessee. New Orleans invested heavily to put themselves in a position to draft Chris Olave and Trevor Penning with the 11th and 19th picks overall this year. Not only did the Saints add Olave, but they also signed Jarvis Landry and are hoping to get Michael Thomas back to 100%. Thomas missed the entire 2021 season played just seven games in 2020. Penning was drafted to replace Terron Armstead, who landed with the Dolphins. New Orleans only got seven games from Jameis Winston last year and in his two seasons with the Saints, Winston has appeared in just 11 games, but he has a 14/3 TD/INT ratio in a Saints uniform after having a ratio of 121/88 during his first five years in Tampa Bay. New Orleans used an extra offensive lineman 18% of the time last year, most in the league for the second straight season.
  • Only two defenses were better than New Orleans last year on a yards per play basis and just three defenses allowed fewer points per game. Marcus Williams left for Baltimore, but the Saints replaced him with Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye at safety. This should remain one of the NFL's best defenses.
  • The Saints are the only team in the division with a new coach for 2022. But unlike in most coaching change situations, Dennis Allen gets the bump because Sean Payton stepped down rather than being forced out. Things shouldn't change all that much with Allen in charge. No team in the league makes fewer draft picks than New Orleans, who made just five selections this year. Since 2008, New Orleans averages just 5.7 picks made per draft class. After a five-game losing streak in the middle of the season, New Orleans won four of their final five contests. Before going 9-8 last year, New Orleans had a four-year streak of 11 or more wins. The Saints are the most aggressive win-now team in the league from a salary cap perspective and are pushing all their chips into the middle of the table once again in 2022.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year's record: 13-4)

  • In Week 6, the Buccaneers are coming to Pittsburgh for a 1 p.m. start on October 16th.
  • Tampa Bay's offense averaged 6.1 yards per play last year, which was the best in football and only the Cowboys produced more offensive points per game. The Bucs finished drives with a touchdown 33.1% of the time, third best in the league and on average, this offense produced 3.59 touchdowns per game which was easily tops in the NFL. Tampa Bay was also best in allowing sacks with their quarterback going down only 23 times all year. The Steelers threw the ball 63.4% of the time last year, which was second in the league to Tampa Bay who led the league in this respect by a very wide margin, passing it 66.5% of their offensive snaps. In the first half of games, Tampa Bay only ran the ball 30% of the time, also the least in the league. There are some changes on this side of the ball though. Gone are Rob Gronkowski, Alex Cappa, and Antonio Brown. But Tampa Bay did sign Russell Gage and traded for Shaq Mason and while Chris Godwin could miss time to start the season because of a torn ACL, Mike Evans remains a fixture for this franchise. Evans has been in the NFL for eight years and has exceeded 1,000 receiving yards each of those eight seasons.
  • Just four defenses gave up less points per game than Tampa Bay and only four defenses took the football away more often. A blitz-happy defense, only one team brought a four-man rush less often than the Buccaneers. In four of the past five years, Tampa Bay's first draft pick has been on the defensive side of the ball, including Logan Hall this year to help replace Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh. Akiem Hicks was also recently added in free agency.
  • The 49ers and Bills were the only teams that had a better yards per play differential than Tampa Bay and only three teams were better with point differential per game. The Bucs were also one of six teams with a turnover differential of +10 or better. Tampa Bay also was +24 with sack differential. The Buccaneers were 7-1 at home in 2021 and won eight of their final 10 regular season games. Tom Brady flirted with retirement but changed his mind and is back for another potential Super Bowl run. The Bucs have been exceptional with Brady at the helm.