Last Wednesday, Football Outsiders began its Plugging the Holes series, in which it targets the offseason issues facing each team in the NFL by division. Robert Weintraub continues with the NFC South.
In this edition, Outsiders looks at the Falcons' team speed, the Panthers' QB situation, the Saints' defensive potential and the Bucs' status as a 2011 sleeper.
Atlanta Falcons: Where's the speed?
The Falcons never were fully embraced as a Super Bowl threat in 2010, and that's because they were never fully feared. The reason was their lack of explosiveness. Despite playing on the fast track at the Georgia Dome, Atlanta had only one scoring play of more than 40 yards all season. The Green Bay Packers wiped out the Falcons in the playoffs with a much faster team -- Atlanta appeared to have been built for the frosty mud of Lambeau Field. Save for superb wideout Roddy White, there was no one on the team who was a threat to score with every touch.
Wide receiver Michael Jenkins is an average plugger who doesn't scare defenses. Harry Douglas showed zero burst after a knee surgery in 2009. And Tony Gonzalez is still Tony Gonzalez but dropped to 9.4 yards per catch, the first time in his 14-year career he wasn't in double digits. Meanwhile, Jerious Norwood, who the Falcons have wanted to be a home run hitter out of the backfield, cannot stay healthy. The word to sum up his career has changed from "unlucky" to "brittle." He likely won't be in Atlanta's plans for 2011.
Finding a Norwood-type runner probably won't take precedence over obtaining another wide receiver, but it should. Thanks to Matt Ryan's efficiency, the passing game was just fine, ranking eighth in the NFL in the Football Outsiders DVOA ratings. The running game, usually credited with Atlanta's success, was 27th in DVOA. Michael Turner and Jason Snelling were good for tough yards, but neither was a breakaway threat. Atlanta was 28th in the NFL in second-level yards, a steep drop from their eighth-place finish in Adjusted Line Yards. That means more due should be given to the Falcons' offensive front than the backs, who were unable to turn five-yard gains into 25-yard gains.