Matt Ryan and the Buccaneers Defense Thrive in Week 1
By Erik Sabol
Cold, Hard Football Facts opening day orator
One week in the books, and the NFC South is already upside down. The Falcons deployed an unstoppable air assault, the Buccaneers were among the league's best defenses, Carolina's rushing attack was historically inept, and Drew Brees was out-dueled by a rookie.
Here are five points of interest from Week 1:
1. Julio Jones is developing into a legendary deep threat.
Since Paul Brown and Bill Walsh revitalized NFL offenses with the short passing game, reception totals have been the most common metric to judge the game's top receivers. But, in the modern era, there have been a handful of players who made their money not with receptions, but with long touchdowns and reels of yardage.
In a 40-24 opening day annihilation of the Kansas City Chiefs, Julio Jones further established himself as one of the those types of big-time players on the perimeter. His six catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns mark the sixth 100-yard effort of his career; if he duplicates the performance a few more times before December, he'll eclipse Randy Moss as the fastest receiver to record 10 triple-digit games in NFL history. His success is unprecedented, and Atlanta's productivity reflects that.
When Jones arrived in 2011, Atlanta's Real Passing Yards per Attempt jumped almost an entire yard. The 9.13 RPYPA that Matt Ryan posted on Sunday was against one of 2011's better pass defenses, and if this is what we can expect out of a Dirk Koetter offense, then the Saints are no longer the team to fear in the South.
2. Doug Martin is Tampa Bay's offense.
A season ago, amidst an all-time NFL meltdown, the Buccaneers struggled in almost every major statistical category, save one. Their yards per carry totals were right in line with the league average, and the few glimpses of offensive success in 2011 were born of explosive plays in the running game. Problem was, the Buccaneers never ran the ball.
They rushed a league-low 346 times a season ago, the ninth-lowest total since the turn of the century. It's part of the reason Raheem Morris and company were drawn, quartered, and banished.
When newly-hired Greg Schiano took over, he promised an honest evaluation of the team, and new schemes constructed to maximize talent and productivity.
He's off to a good start. In a 16-10 win over division rival Carolina, rookie runner Doug Martin carried 24 times for 95 yards behind Tampa's Offensive Hogs, and added four receptions for 23 yards as an outlet receiver. His 28 touches from scrimmage tie him for the league lead in Week 1, and are fourth-most all-time for a rookie starting the first game of a season
3. The new season means ugly defense in the Big Easy.
A year ago, the Saints rampaged through 16 weeks of NFL football, supercharging scoreboards and erasing offensive records. They averaged 41.5 points per game in the Superdome, with a quarterback and system that made them formidable even in defeat.
And for all the forced evolution they experienced in the offseason -- suspended coaches, departed players, and the heat of public scrutiny -- things look the same in 2012.
A 40-32 loss to the upstart Redskins highlights all the deficiencies of a year ago: the Saints wallowed in the bottom-third in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating, Defensive Passer Rating, Defensive Hog Index, and Negative Pass Plays forced. Robert Griffin's immediate ascendancy is no surprise against a defense mid-transition. Griffin became the second rookie quarterback to lead his team to 40 points on opening day, and the first to do it in 41 years. And that casts an ominous cloud over the coming 15 weeks: if Spagnuolo's defense doesn't improve in a hurry, not even Brees can save the season.
4. Why is Carolina paying Mike Tolbert?
The Panthers spent most of 2011 redefining offensive productivity. Their rushing totals were ludicrous, and their efficiency breached uncharted territory. Behind the league's second-best set of Offensive Hogs, the talents of Cam Newton, Jonathan Stewart, and DeAngelo Williams imbued Carolina with one of the most explosive and versatile offenses in modern history.
But without Stewart, that uncontainable offense sunk back to two dimensions. The Panthers fell 16-10 to the Buccaneers on a wet and soggy field.
Trailing for the entire game, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and his Panthers were quick to abandon an ineffective running game. They carried only 12 times the entire contest (the fewest attempts in more than five seasons), and six of those rushes went for zero yards or less. Their 10 total yards on the ground tied for fewest in team history, and Carolina's 0.83 average per rush was bested only by a Tim Biakabutuka debacle back in December of 2000.
Mike Tolbert, Carolina's $2.7 million free agent acquisition, carried only once, and spent most of his time pass blocking and catching doomed outlet passes from a panicky Cam Newton. His four touches were the fewest he had received since 2010.
5. At age 37, Ronde Barber is still a premier defender in the NFC South.
Making his 216th career start (and a league-leading 200th consecutive), Barber continues to battle back the decay of his physical talent. Tampa Bay's 5 foot, 10 inch free safety became the second-oldest player in league history to record a sack and an interception in the same game: 37-year-old linebacker Rickey Jackson did it for San Francisco in 1995, but no defensive back has come within a year of Ronde Barber.
And if he records another two quarterback takedowns before season's end, he'd stand alone as the only player in history with 40 interceptions and 30 sacks, garnered over 15 storied seasons.
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