NFC South Preview: Saints Look To Overcome Offseason Turmoil
The NFC South produced one Super Bowl champion and a whole lot of mediocrity in 2009. New Orleans retained most of its Super Bowl core but dealt with several off-the-field distractions in the offseason.
Meanwhile, Atlanta looks to return to playoff form after an injury plagued 2009 campaign, and Carolina and Tampa Bay hope for speedy rebuilding processes that put them back in the playoff picture.
Will it again be time for an early Mardi Gras in January on Bourbon Street? Or will a new team be leading its parade in 2010?
2009 Record: 9-7
After a season marked by more injuries than the Battle of Bunker Hill, Atlanta is patched up and poised to make another playoff run.
The Falcons boast an offense capable of outbursts that would make even Mel Gibson cringe. Matt Ryan is poised to ascend to stardom after a “sophomore slump” in 2009 during which he still netted 2,916 passing yards and threw for 22 touchdowns. Michael Turner missed five games last season with an injured ankle but managed to average 4.9 yards per carry while on the field.
Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White also return to provide ammo for Ryan’s cannon. If healthy, the offense should see a return to its 2008 form when it ranked in the Top 10 in rushing and overall yards from scrimmage. Add an experienced Ryan to the mix and you are looking at a comeback of New Kids on the Block proportion.
Defensively, however, the Falcons have more question marks than the Riddler’s wardrobe. After losing top draft picks Peria Jerry and William Moore to injury,last season the Falcons’ defense took a turn toward the disastrous. They ranked 28th against the pass and struggled to put any kind of pressure on the quarterback.
The acquisition of stud cornerback Dunta Robinson will dramatically improve a secondary that was in need of veteran leadership. First round draft pick Sean Weatherspoon also has the potential to be a difference maker if given the opportunity to start.
Bottom Line: After putting together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, the Falcons now have their sights set on dethroning the Super Bowl champion Saints. In order to do so, the defense will need to transform from doves to birds of prey in 2010.
Key Additions: CB Dunta Robinson, LB Sean Weatherspoon
Key Losses: CB Chris Houston
New Orleans Saints
2009 Record: 13-3
As if Bourbon Street needed another reason to party, the Saints won their first Super bowl in 43 years of existence last season. Then came the inevitable laundry list of off-season distractions: the NCAA investigation involving Reggie Bush, alleged Vicodin abuse within the coaching staff and the departure of key veterans.
Assuming Sean Payton and Drew Brees scheduled some football between their book signings, the offense will be back to its old tricks in New Orleans. The one area of concern for the offense is pass protection. For all of his superhuman feats last year, Brees was sacked 20 times – the most of his New Orleans career. The loss of tackle Jammal Brown doesn’t help the cause, but rookie tackle Charles Brown could be a significant help in keeping Brees upright in 2010.
In the passing game, Brees should enjoy more hook-ups than Bret Michaels at a trailer park convention. Marques Colston and Jeremy Shockey lead a bottomless pool of talent in the receiving corps. Meanwhile, Reggie Bush reports to training camp about 10 pounds lighter without his old Heisman Trophy weighing him down. He and Pierre Thomas still provide one of the most dynamic backfields in the NFC.
Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams deserves just as much credit as anybody for the Saints run to the Lombardi Trophy last season. He transformed a maligned Saints defense into a ball-hawking, turnover-creating dynamo.
The losses of linebacker Scott Fujita and defensive end Charles Grant hurt the pass rush, but newly acquired defensive end Alex Brown should be solid up front. The Saints need their young cornerbacks to develop though; the team ranked 26th against the pass last season.
Bottom Line: The veteran leadership in New Orleans needs to step up if the team hopes to avoid a Super Bowl hangover. Brees’ steady hand should keep the egos in check after a successful 2009 season. Still, it remains to be seen how the team deals with the pressure of having a target on its back for a full season.
Key Additions: DE Alex Brown, DE Jimmy Wilkerson, OT Charles Brown
Key Losses: LB Scott Fujita, DE Charles Grant, OT Jammal Brown
2009 Record: 8-8
The 2009 Panthers picked up right where they left off after the Arizona Cardinals mowed the field with them in the 2008 divisional playoffs.
Jake Delhomme looked as if he had been possessed by the ghost of Ryan Leaf, throwing 18 interceptions in just 11 games. Equally uninspiring was the rush defense, which gave up almost 2,000 yards on the ground.
With Delhomme gone, rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen was drafted to compete with perennial backup Matt Moore for the starting quarterback job. Although Moore posted respectable numbers – a 98.5 quarterback rating and 61.6 completion percentage – during limited action last season, he is merely a placeholder for the highly touted Notre Dame product.
In the backfield, running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart figure to cover more ground than UPS this season. The two combined for over 2,000 yards last year and are in line for an even greater work load if Clausen is put under center.
The Panthers’ defense appeared to be declawed last year and will be without the services of free agency casualty Julius Peppers in 2010. Taking Peppers from the Panthers defense is like taking Ricky Martin out of Menudo -- an already crappy group just got worse.
Bottom Line: This may be the last hoorah for coach John Fox in Carolina. The team is clearly entering a rebuilding phase and will need to exercise patience with its young players. Although veterans such as Steve Smith and Chris Gamble are still around to provide leadership, this team will be lucky to stiff 8-8 in 2010.
Key Additions: QB Jimmy Clausen, LB Jamar Williams
Key Losses: QB Jake Delhomme, DE Julius Peppers, WR Muhsin Muhammad, FB Brad Hoover, S Chris Harris, DT Maake Kemoeatu
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2009 Record: 3-13
2009 dealt the Bucs a tougher blow than an errant water bottle at a Justin Bieber concert. Tampa Bay went through some intense growing pains last season.
Rookie quarterback Josh Freeman looked as raw as sashimi, throwing 18 interceptions versus only 10 touchdowns. Running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams and tight end Kellen Winslow provided a couple of bright spots, however, coming off serious injuries to have solid seasons.
The additions of veteran receiver Reggie Brown and rookie wideout Arrelious Benn provide Freeman some much needed help in the passing game. The offensive line, however, will need to do a better job in pass protection after letting Freeman hit the deck 20 times in just 10 appearances last season.
For how awful the Buccaneers’ offense was last year, the defense had them beat. Tampa Bay ranked dead last against the run and 27th in total yards surrendered. Opposing offenses were racking up enough miles in Tampa to start their own frequent flyer program.
The team addressed some of its woes on defense by drafting Gerald McCoy and Brian Price at defensive tackle. With his skill set, McCoy should remind Buccaneers fans of another former athletic defensive lineman who wore the pewter and red for several seasons: Warren Sapp. Unfortunately, it will be a while before the rest of the defense draws similarly favorable comparisons.
Bottom Line: Members of Tampa Bay’s vast retirement community may want to get their pacemakers tuned before the season starts. It’s going to be rough. Head coach Raheem Morris has his work cut out for him as the Buccaneers reclamation project enters its second year. The team should take some baby steps forward this season but it will be a while before Tampa Bay walks into the playoffs.
Key Additions: WR Reggie Brown, DT Gerald McCoy, DT Brian Price, WR Arrelious Benn
Key Losses: WR Antonio Bryant, DE Jimmy Wilkerson, DT Chris Hovan, CB Will Allen
2010 Predicted Division Winner: New Orleans Saints
Wild Card: Atlanta Falcons
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