NFL 2009 – NFC South preview
There was so much to enjoy about the NFC South last year with potent offence providing fans of all four franchises with highs and lows throughout the season.
The emergence of Matt Ryan came as the biggest and most welcome surprise as his Atlanta Falcons charged to the play-offs but the feel good stories were not only limited to Georgia.
Another incredible year for Steve Smith in Carolina, Jeff Garcia's last hoorah in Tampa and 5,000+ passing yards for Drew Brees in New Orleans ensured that life was never dull in South. All that's needed now is a representative of the division to go on and throw down a serious challenge in post-season action.
Atlanta Falcons - 9/4
Miami may have made most headlines but it was the Falcons who were the NFL's best sleeper last year as the faith they showed in Matt Ryan was rewarded. Ryan had been brilliant for Boston College and was every inch as good in his rookie year in Atlanta. Their charge towards the play-offs was as impressive as it was unexpected and, with a little extra defence, they could have gone even further.
The question now is, was it all a fluke or are they actually as good as they seem? That remains to be seen but the acquisition of Tony Gonzalez certainly means the vibes are good. Justin Peelle had an exceptional first season in Atlanta but someone like Gonzalez just adds a whole new dimension. Michael Turner is once again the key to the rush and, without health issues, should fill that role to a high standard.
Of more concern to Falcons backers is a defence that too often failed to put pressure on the quarterback. The defensive has been going through a rebuilding process but unfortunately it's still a work in progress as the likes of Jamaal Anderson and Curtis Lofton are still not quite where Brian VanGorder would have liked them to be. Undoubtedly they have most of the parts needed for a quality unit, they now just need to find a way of giving support to John Abraham.
Prediction: 3rd similar to last season but not quite the finished article
Carolina Panthers - 12/5
Scheduling was in Carolina's favour last year but that takes nothing away from what was a scarily loaded offence. Steve Smith was typically magnificent but his job was made all the more simple with Jonathon Stewart and DeAngelo Williams forming a near perfect rush. Jake Delhomme did what was needed of him but, unfortunately for the Panthers, the doubters were proved right as he failed miserably in their play-off defeat to Arizona. Their other problem at play-off time was an average defence that really struggled at times against the better offences in the Conference.
The Panthers' offensive was, quite simply, a treat in 2008 so it came as no surprise that John Foxx felt no need to strengthen. Delhomme, while not among the elite, is an adequate QB that always has the option of looking for Steve Smith. Smith, alongside Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, is the best receiver in the NFC and is one of very few that can be relied on to produce something very special every week. Stewart and Williams should post fantastic numbers again and, if Muhsin Muhammed can be a good number two target, then Carolina will certainly rack up the points.
If they have expectations of a long post-season run though then they absolutely have to tighten up in several areas on the defence. Julius Peppers was a one man wrecking mission last year but he can't do it all and he needs the rush stoppers to aid his hard hitting pass rush influence. All too often last year the Panthers gave up too much space against the rush and, as the Cardinals showed, it will be exploited by play-off calibre franchises. They'll be hoping Everette Brown will plug a few gaps in his rookie year.
Prediction: 1st purely based on their awesome offence
New Orleans Saints - 13/8
Much like the city itself, New Orleans had to go through a rebuilding process this off-season after a year that saw loads of offence but virtually no defence. They were able to finish with a respectable 8-8 record but it could have been so much better had they provided the defensive support that Drew Brees' unbelievable effort deserved. They finished last in the South but they'll have much loftier ambitions this time around after a defensive re-shuffle that saw former Buffalo coach Gregg Williams take over as co-ordinator.
While Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas looked dangerous at times, the Saints will remain a predominantly pass based offence - and why wouldn't you be with Brees around. He'll have a fully fit Marques Colston to aim for and hopefully they'll be able to get a bit more out of the disappointing Jeremy Shockey. Deuce McAllister will be a big miss if Bush struggles to deliver but, like most people, I am desperate to see the College Bush rather than the NFL flop.
What Williams has done with the defence is the real talking point though as he attempts to improve on their rank of 23rd overall last year. Darren Sharper should provide an instant impact in the secondary, while Jonathan Vilma could give them a massive boost if returns to the form that landed him the defensive rookie of the year award back in 2005. The strength of the line in still a big worry though, although new line coach Bill Johnson may get the best out of Sedrick Ellis and Charles Grant. If he manages it then New Orleans will be a real force to be reckoned with.
Prediction: 2nd a real play-off contender
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - 11/2
The Bucs had in their own hands in 2008 before a late season slump blew away their play-off dream. Unlike their South division rivals though it wasn't weakness on defence that cost them, rather it was a lack of an elite QB. Jeff Garcia managed a decent job but lacked the spark needed to consistently find men in the end zone. John Gruden may have brought Tampa a Super Bowl but his tenure was ended after another season of underachievement.
The change in management has been followed with a vital change on the offence. Garcia and Warwick Dunn are out; Byron Leftwich, Kellen Winslow and Derrick Ward have arrived and highly though-of Josh Freeman was drafted in. Leftwich may be the starting QB but Freeman will be chomping at the bit if he gets a chance in his rookie season. The rush still remains a big part of the Buccaneers plans though and Carnell Williams, Earnest Graham and Derrick Ward should enable a good deal of success with this. Pro-Bowler Kellen Winslow will be expected to bounce back after a poor year in Cincinnati.
Much of the same can be expected on the defence despite the change of co-ordinator from Monte Kiffin to Jim Bates. Bates' style should ensure plenty of blitzing and good pass rushing is on the cards at the Raymond James Stadium. Barrett Ruud is coming off a superb season and he'll need to be even better this year as he takes on a leadership role in the absence of Derrick Brooks. Sophomore corner Aqib Talib is the one to watch after a fantastic rookie performance.
Prediction: 4th lack the spark to go further