2010 NFL Preview – NFC South

Posted: August 23, 2010 by The Cheap Seat Fan in NFL
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The NFC South is another segregated division, albeit one that has a clear upper, middle and lower class. Last season the New Orleans Saints finished with a 4 game lead in clinching the division, in route to their first Super Bowl championship. This was aided by declines in both Carolina and Atlanta, and the rebuilding of Tampa Bay, who ended up as the third worst of all NFL teams.

In 2010, there hasn’t been any dramatic shakeup amongst the majority of the rosters in the division, save for the Panthers who lost franchise leaders of both the past and present in Julius Peppers and Jake Delhomme (one of which could actually help the team turn the corner, the other drastically reducing their talent, making this a push). The Saints return a core that inspired an entire city and made a dramatic rise to the NFL throne. The the extreme opposite, Tampa Bay’s the rebuilding process took impressive Draft day strides, but will it pay off immediately? As for the Falcons, good health has found them again, but will it be enough to return them to among the NFC elite? Answers await below….

Atlanta Falcons (9-7 in 2009)

Offense: M. Turner-RB, R. White-WR, M. Ryan-QB, T. Gonzalez-TE (B+)

Defense: D. Robinson-CB, C. Lofton-LB, J. Abraham-DE (C+)

The Good: The offense will get to be intact again this year. The offense never really got to get together on one accord last season, with injuries to Matt Ryan, Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood all coming at different points in the year. While Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez still put up good campaigns, they never got to play as one complete team. If they can get the whole team consistent and healthy, this will be one of the better offenses in the NFC.

If Turner is healthy enough to carry the Falcons on his back this year, they could make some noise.

The Bad: The defensive still is subpar in each level. They made a big acquisition by landing Dunta Robinson to help a secondary in need and drafted linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who is an athletic tackling machine, but there are still lots of holes. The line is shallow and John Abraham’s age in beginning to set in. At safety, there isn’t a lot of noticeable talent since Lawyer Milloy’s departure. Basically, they don’t apply much pressure to the QB and the secondary is still prone to the big play, a recipe that doesn’t mix much success into it.

X-Factor-Matt Ryan: Year two was a disappointment for the franchise cornerstone in Atlanta. He struggled with injuries and accuracy, and his numbers mostly reflected it, with a 9 point drop in QB rating and a 500 yard decrease. Accuracy was a struggle for him, and no doubt the struggles of the Falcons offensive line contributed to it, but his consistency must improve. As he declined, the fortunes of the team as a whole followed and his success is invaluable to the Falcons either soaring or crashing.

2010 Prediction: @ Pit (L), Ari (W), @ NO (L), SF (L), @ Cle (W), @ Phi (L), Cin (L), TB (W), Bal (L), @ StL (W), GB (W), @ TB (W), @ Car (L), @ Sea (W), NO (L), Car (W)

Summary: The Falcons are a team that can either sink or swim. With their cornerstones of Ryan and Turner fully healthy the offense could soar, but the defense has to rise to the occasion and not force them to score more than they can handle. They’ll play better, but another 2008 doesn’t seem to be in the cards until the secondary improves. RECORD: 8-8

Carolina Panthers (8-8 in 2009)

Offense: D. Williams-RB, J. Stewart-RB, S. Smith-WR (C+)

Defense: J. Beason-LB, R. Marshall-CB, E. Brown-DE (C+)

The Good: They are a run heavy team and use an excellent balance on the ground, smartly leaning on the best running back combination in the NFL. Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams combined for 2,250 rush yards and 17 TD last year, Stewart getting only five more carries. Linebacker Jon Beason is a tackling machine, finishing with over 140 in ’09 and manned the middle of defense that was the 4th best pass protection team in the league.

In the post-Peppers Carolina defense, Beason will be leaned on even more to lead the way.

The Bad: They have the most lopsided passing game in football. Steve Smith is still a great talent, but there is nothing else after him to take away any defensive attention away from him. It’s a credit to his talent that he was able still reach 982 yards last year. Someone has to step forward to provide some sort of threat to help diversify this passing attack, both for the welfare of the continual grow of Matt Moore, who took over the QB reins late in ’09 to some success (8 TD to 2 interceptions), and to take some heat of Smith so he can return to his Pro Bowl form of years past.

X-Factor-Everette Brown: After many seasons of asking out, Julius Peppers finally got his wish this offseason and headed to Chicago. The departure of their premier player will drop the Panther sack total surely, but if 2009 second rounder Brown can step in and further develop the pass rushing prowess he showed at Florida State, the lost may not be as great as it could be. Their talented secondary was greatly benefited by Peppers’ constant pressure forcing the pass, and it needs Brown to step in and step up.

2010 Prediction: @ NYG (L), TB (W), Cin (L), @ NO (L), Chi (L), SF (L), @ StL (W), NO (L), @ TB (L), Bal (L), @ Cle (W), @ Sea (L), Atl (W), Ari (W), @ Pit (W), @ Atl (L)

Summary: The Panthers have several good parts to their approach, but have some severe lacks in others. Their lack of diversity on offense will keep them down and the uncertainty of the post-Peppers defense could be challenged by their more talented opponents this year. A potential quarterback battle in-season between Moore and rookie Jimmy Clausen will not help matters either. RECORD: 6-10

New Orleans Saints (13-3 in 2009; Super Bowl Champions)

Offense: D. Brees-QB, M. Colston-WR, R. Meachem-WR, P. Thomas-RB, J. Evans-G (A+)

Defense: J. Vilma-LB, D. Sharper-FS, M. Jenkins-CB, W. Smith-DE (B+)

The Good: Well, they won the Super Bowl and brought back nearly everybody. Surrounding All-World QB Drew Brees is the best offensive supporting cast in football. Receivers Marques Colston, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson all surpassed 700 yards receiving. Guard Jahri Evans and Jonathan Stinchcomb lead a strong offensive line, which makes Brees’ exploits possible. Darren Sharper’s arrival in NO sparked a defensive surge that played a huge role in pushing the Saints to the next level. The defense wasn’t always technically great, but made plays when they were needed and stopped opponents enough for the offense to overwhelm opponents long enough for the win.

Sharper has become nearly everything to the Saints defense that Brees is to the offense.

The Bad: There is still much improvement that could be asked for along the offensive line. Sedrick Ellis has not lived up to expectations at defensive tackle and Will Smith (13 sacks in ’09) is the only pass rushing threat along the line. They survived on Jonathan Vilma tackling everything that got past them and the secondary making big plays last year; they have to make a bigger impact as a unit this year.

X-Factor-Pierre Thomas/Reggie Bush: Before last year, the Saints were really only a passing team, but the increased emphasis on the run, and its success, had as much to do with the Saints first Super Bowl win as anything else. Thomas and Bush will be used as the primary runners only this season, and how they stand up from a durability perspective is critical. Bush will never be an every down runner, but he will be asked to run more than the 70 times he did last year. Thomas will most likely surpass 200 rushes for the first time in his career as well, so his health is worth watch as well. With a lesser ground game, their bread and butter air game will suffer.

2010 Prediction: Min (W), @ SF (W), Atl (W), Car (W), @ Ari (W), @ TB (W), Cle (W), Pit (L), @ Car (W), Sea (W), @ Dal (W), @ Cin (L), StL (W), @ Bal (L), @ Atl (W), TB (W)

Summary: The defending champs have some uncertainties on defense, but still have the most devastating offense in football in many years. They return all of their critical pieces and all are healthy. A lot of things just worked out in their favor last year, but it wasn’t destiny. They are good and will be among the class of the NFC again. RECORD: 13-3

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-13 in 2009)

Offense: K. Winslow-TE, C. Williams-RB, E. Graham-RB, J. Freeman-QB (D)

Defense: B. Ruud-LB, T. Jackson-FS, R. Barber-CB, G. McCoy-DT (C)

The Good: They continued to rebuild, drastically. They had among the best drafts of any team in April, landing several more great young building blocks in Gerald McCoy, Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn and Brian Price to help on both sides of the ball. The still have Kellen Winslow, who had a great bounce back season last year and they have one of the best pass defenses in football led by Ronde Barber, Tanard Jackson and Aqib Talib.

Winslow is the only dependable option for the Bucs, and Freeman will look to him often.

The Bad: They are still terribly young and overmatched in many places. The passing and rushing offenses finished 24th and 23rd in the NFL, respectively. This is due to an offensive line that needs upgrades everywhere. This could have been addressed in April’s draft, but they had to work on their rushing defense first, which finished dead last in yardage allowed, with 158 yards per game. They have little that is consistently dependable at wide receiver, and rookies Williams and Benn will be counted on early and often, a risky proposition.

X-Factor-Josh Freeman: The Bucs young 2009 first rounder had a rocky rookie season after being deployed in week 7. He showed flashes of brilliance, as an athletic passer that can make plays downfield and with his feet. However, he also turned the ball over, or put it in jeopardy, frequently (as 18 interceptions and 9 fumbles dramatically show). He has the tools and the Bucs are willing to let him learn on the run how to use them, but reeling him in some so he can taste more frequent success would do wonders for his psyche and the win column. His development is huge for this young team.

2010 Prediction: Cle (W), @ Car (L), Pit (L), @ Cin (L), NO (L), StL (L), @ Ari (L), @ Atl (L), Car (W), @ SF (L), @ Bal (L), Atl (L), @ Was (L), Det (L), Sea (W), @ NO (L)

Summary: Tampa is in a state of major rebuilding and it will continue past this year. They show flashes of having what it takes and will scare some teams this year, but they will be playing a lot of rookies and second year guys at critical positions, so a digression year before better times is in order. RECORD: 2-14

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