A few of you scoffed when I said that Ray Edwards was a great run-stopper the other day, insinuating that it wasn't important. I was a little stunned by that at first, but then I realized you had some justification.
The league has switched wholesale from the power running schemes that worked so well in previous decades to an air-it-out-or-die mentality. Running backs are easily replaced and used in committee, and while the ground game is important, the best teams in the league don't really run all that well. Look at the Packers, Patriots and to some degree the Saints if you need evidence. It's a profound shift, and it makes Edwards' lack of production as a pass rusher matter much more than his run-stopping ability.
But that doesn't mean it's not important to stop the run, and a team in the NFC South is going to make that plainly evident in 2012. I refer, of course, to the Carolina Panthers.
The Panthers may have the best ground game in the NFL next year if they keep all their personnel. Cam Newton runs extremely well for a quarterback and has enough power to be a goal line guy. Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams have speed, agility and enough power to cause problems for any defense, assuming they can stay healthy. And now the Panthers have added Mike Tolbert, a human battering ram who can also catch passes, to the mix. That's a scary bunch.
The Falcons are arguably the only team in the NFC South who are prepared to stop the Panthers on the ground, which is where they will continue to wreak havoc in 2012. The Saints lack the size and power up front to do so, while the Buccaneers have a woeful group of linebackers and a secondary that doesn't exactly inspire fear in the second level. Brian Van Gorder built his defense to stop the run and as a result, the Falcons got to be incredibly good at it.
That will be an advantage against Carolina, which now has a new dimension with Tolbert on board, and against any squad with a good ground game.
It's not as important as it once was, but it's going to be key at least twice this year. I'm glad the Falcons haven't neglected it.