NFC South Superman: Cam Newton resurrects Carolina offense
By Erik Sabol
Cold, Hard Football Facts NFC South Analyst
In 2012's opening two games, three of the four NFC South teams have shown both skyward capability and crippling deficiency.
Here are five things we discovered during Sunday's games:
1. Superman still lives in Charlotte.
After an uncharacteristic offensive lapse in Week 1, Cam Newton and company found their footing against New Orleans.
Using their devastating three-pronged running attack, the Panthers dropped the Saints 35-27 in a game that never seemed as close as the score.
Carolina more than doubled their offensive efficiency from the opening week. They left Tampa Bay as a distant last in Scoreability, but recorded an impressive 13.2 yards per point against Steve Spagnuolo's fledgling defense.
Much of the success was championed by Newton, who completed 70 percent of his passes and contributed 324 total yards with the ball in his hands. Four of his 13 carries went for first downs or scores, including a 40-yarder that reminded the rest of the league that -- growing pains or not -- the Panthers employ the best athlete in professional football.
2. Tampa Bay's offense disappears after halftime.
The Buccaneers dominated the Giants in the opening two quarters, but they sloppily blew the second half, and their performance left Bree Olson taking notes. The final score was 41-34, New York -- only 16 minutes removed from a 27-16 Tampa Bay lead.
And so far in the young season, their third- and fourth-quarter performances have been an insidious reminder of the inexperience of the coaching staff. In two weeks, they've outscored opponents 37-13 in the first half. But after halftime, they've been bested 38-13.
It's a story of playcalling. Against New York in the second half, Tampa Bay ran the ball between the tackles (without success) on eight of 11 first downs, before the final desperate drive to tie... even while the Giants were slowly chipping away at the scoreboard.
Before they lost their multi-touchdown lead, the Buccaneers earned only three points off five second-half drives. New offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan will grow into his role, but if the Buccaneers expect to win more than a handful of games, they need to learn to step on a few windpipes in the closing quarters.
3. New Orleans' defense went sour this offseason.
A week ago, the Saints stumbled out of the gate against Washington; they left the field as Week 1's worst passing defense after having surrendered 11.52 Defensive Real Passing Yards Per Attempt. Things, uh, improved in Week 2 -- they allowed only 254 net yards on 23 Cam Newton dropbacks: an 11.04 average in the 35-27 loss in Carolina.
But still worst, by far, in the league over the opening two weeks.
And what's worse -- to compliment professional football's most inept pass defense -- New Orleans is the only team in the league to surrender at least 150 rushing yards in each of their first two contests. Their defense is a black hole of ineptitude, absorbing every completion, run, and first down the opposing team deploys.
The 922 yards they've allowed thus far is the franchise's worst mark in 27 years, and with Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers lurking on the horizon, it'll get worse before it gets better.
4. Tampa's lack of depth will sabotage a promising season.
When Greg Schiano arrived, he immediately cut the dead weight from 2011's weakest roster. Gone were Brian Price, Tanard Jackson, Kellen Winslow, and Desmond Briscoe, replaced by hungry youth and tenacious journeymen at every axis.
And that's a step in the right direction. But the pool is shallow in Schiano's first year: Brandon McDonald, DJ Ware, Gary Gibson and others man key points on Tampa's depth chart. When the vehicle slows and the starters are coughing fumes, the Buccaneers are pulling their relief from a field of raw mediocrity.
It's to be expected. The Schiano era is two weeks old, and the roster is far from turned over. But a lot of Tampa's second-half woes are born from those deep cuts inflicted in the offseason by Schiano's undiscerning cleaver.
5. The reign is over for Brees and the Saints.
For now, anyway.
It's never a good idea to discount a team early in the season, especially one with the nuclear firepower of New Orleans. But the Saints are too hormonally imbalanced to rule the division. Drew Brees is trying to play quarterback, coach, and serve as coordinator, and he's dying under the weight of the responsibility.
Sunday's loss to Carolina marked only the second instance in four seasons where Brees has thrown multiple picks in back-to-back games; it's also the second time in three seasons the Saints have suffered consecutive losses under the watch of their record-blasting passer.
The Saints are down, and in the meantime, we're observing a serious Tampa Bay reconstruction, the development of the incomparable Cam Newton, and the ascendance of Mike Smith's dynamic Atlanta Falcons.
And that's not a bad thing. Since Brees arrived, the Saints have been the South's closest thing to a consistent contender. It's about time someone else had a turn.
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