Defense will decide the NFC South

Will Ray Edwards (left) or Malcolm Jenkins step up and help their teams dominate the division? Getty Images

Now that the Carolina Panthers have stepped into this century, the NFC South has a new look from top to bottom.

Cam Newton is flinging footballs, the Panthers are scoring points, and the days of John Fox signing off on a third-and-long draw play to Nick Goings are history. The Panthers have their franchise quarterback in Newton, which gives them something in common with the Saints, Falcons and Buccaneers.

Newton joining New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman just might make the NFC South the league’s only division with four franchise quarterbacks. That’s great.

But, now that everybody has a franchise quarterback, this division isn’t going to be settled by a quarterback. All four teams now are capable of scoring points in bunches.

The team that wins the NFC South this year will be the team with the best defense. Think about that for a second. Suddenly there is no clear-cut favorite. The division filled with elite quarterbacks doesn’t have a blue-chip defense or anything close to it.

The days of Fox taking the Panthers to the Super Bowl purely with defense and Monte Kiffin doing the same with Tampa Bay were almost a decade ago. While the NFC South was becoming a quarterback-driven division in a quarterback-driven league, everybody sort of forgot about defense.

It’s time to remember the old adage that “defense wins championships,’’ because that’s what it’s going to come down to in the NFC South. That’s a scary prospect no matter which of the four teams you root for.

None of them are loaded with defensive talent, and none of them are off to great defensive starts. Based on yardage allowed through two games, the NFC South has three bottom feeders.

Carolina is No. 26 at 406.5 yards a game. Atlanta is No. 27 at 412 and Tampa Bay is No. 28 at 414.5. The Saints are No. 12 at 322.5, but before Who Dat Nation gets too carried away, let’s remember the Packers hung 42 points on New Orleans in the opener.

There’s not even a truly dominant defensive player in the NFC South. On offense, you can go beyond the quarterbacks and point to guys like Atlanta receiver Roddy White, Carolina left tackle Jordan Gross, Tampa Bay tight end Kellen Winslow and Atlanta running back Michael Turner. You can say they’re in the top five in the league at their position and nobody’s going to give you much of an argument.

Try that on defense? Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber and Atlanta defensive end John Abraham are the biggest names, but they’re at the end of their careers. New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins and Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson are budding stars, but they haven’t done it long enough.

The best overall defensive player in the division might be Carolina linebacker Jon Beason, and he’s out for the season with an injury. So who’s going to step up and play enough defense to win the NFC South?

Let’s take a look at the candidates.

New Orleans. This is a defense that can go two ways, as evidenced by the Super Bowl championship in the 2009 season and the playoff collapse at Seattle last season. The Saints are never going to be one of those defenses that shuts you down for an entire game.

With Brees, they don’t have to be that type of defense. They just have to be opportunistic like they were in 2009. Coordinator Gregg Williams is an aggressive guy, and he’s going to take chances and call blitzes all season long.

If this defense can just come up with some turnovers at key times and stop a few drives, the Saints could go a long way. But they’ll need the pass rush to force some mistakes so players like Jenkins, linebacker Jonathan Vilma and cornerback Jabari Greer can come up with the big plays.

Atlanta. This is the one defense that I think has the potential to be good all the way around, but it’s not there yet. It’s kind of ironic that coach Mike Smith comes from a defensive background, but hasn’t been able to totally play his kind of defense in his first three seasons.

That could change this year. Abraham still has a little left and he’s starting to get some help from defensive end Ray Edwards, the Falcons’ big acquisition in free agency, and defensive tackle Peria Jerry, who is starting to remind people why he was a first-round pick in 2009.

If defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux can get healthy, the Falcons could have the type of defensive line that allows linebackers Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon, cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson, and safety William Moore to become playmakers.

Tampa Bay. Like Smith, Raheem Morris comes from a defensive background. Like Smith, his defense is a work in progress. But Tampa Bay’s defense might not be as close to breaking through as Atlanta’s.

The Bucs are incredibly young in the front seven. But there is plenty of potential. Defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers were the team’s first two draft picks this year, and defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price were the top two draft picks last year. The Bucs are starting rookie Mason Foster at middle linebacker and he’s already flashing potential.

It might take the Bucs some time to get this defense going. Then again, Morris and his staff have been known to get quick results from young players. They won 10 games last season when Freeman was in his first full season as a starter.

Carolina. Ron Rivera also has a defensive pedigree, but he’s been dealt a tough hand. Beason and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis are out for the season, and the Panthers started losing defensive tackles in training camp.

But there’s hope because Carolina potentially could have the division’s best pass rush with defensive ends Johnson and Greg Hardy. They could force some turnovers and give Newton some help. A little defensive help is really all that’s needed in the NFC South.

The offenses are going to dominate this division. But one defense is going to decide it. Which one? It’s too early to say.

They all have potential, but the one that maximizes it at the right time and makes itself a little bit different from the rest is going to be the NFC South champion.