There's a reason no team in the history of the NFC South has repeated as division champion. The competitiveness of the division is always among the league's best and the arms race to outdo the other franchises in the NFC South is consistent and endless.
A look at the defensive statistics of three major categories (run yards allowed, pass yards allowed and scoring allowed) shows one of the reasons the division is up for grabs every year. There is no clear and consistently dominant defense from one season to the next.
There are few trends to see in the division since 2008, but a couple jump out. The Falcons, since 2008, have consistently improved their run defense, jumping from 25th in '08 to 10th in '09 and '10 to sixth last season. The Bucs have performed near the bottom of the league in this category in that same time span, finishing 32nd last season, 28th in '10 and 32nd in '09.
What does it all mean? That remains to be seen, but the trends are encouraging for the Falcons continued improvement. Mike Nolan came to Atlanta in the offseason to assume the defensive coordinator position and he has history on his side. Nolan's history as a coordinator is long and sprinkled with success. He has a reputation for taking over a defense and delivering immediate improvements.
While the Bucs and Panthers are young teams, improvement is expected from both of them in 2012. Both ranked near the bottom of the league in all three defensive statistics. Improvement is likely, but big jumps may be a year away. The Saints experienced some turnover on the defensive side of the ball, but welcome a bright defensive mind in Steve Spagnuolo to head the defense. Some of New Orleans' key defensive players will miss some time to begin the season because of suspensions.
The Falcons return all starters from last year's defense with the exception of one, Curtis Lofton who left for New Orleans. In addition to the returning core, they've added four-time Pro Bowl corner Asante Samuel. Under Nolan's direction with the cohesion in place and the potential of Samuel, the Falcons could be primed for a breakout defensive season. Improvement on every defensive metric listed above will not only make Atlanta's defense the best in the NFC South, but possibly one of the best in the league.