NFC South preview
Falcons can take command in the South from Saints
By David John. Last Updated: September 5, 2012 10:37am
The Atlanta Flacons have the perfect chance to step up as the New Orleans Saints deal with the fallout of bountygate.
Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
Star Man: Julio Jones
The Falcons have been on the cusp of success for a number of seasons but two recent humiliating defeats in the play-offs by the eventual Super Bowl winners certainly left a bitter taste in the mouth. So the time has arrived then for quarterback Matt Ryan and company to finally deliver a run deep into the post-season with an appearance in the finale in New Orleans not out of the question.
New offensive co-ordinator Dirk Koetter is in position and the emphasis will be on a vertical passing game with Ryan working in the off-season on his arm strength.
Second-season wide receiver Julio Jones will be key to that philosophy and plenty is expected of the speedster now he is fit having endured an injury-hit first season as a pro. That said, he still managed almost 1,000 yards in receptions and has the talent to improve considerably on those numbers.
The experienced Mike Nolan takes over as the defensive co-ordinator and he has some quality to work with like linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and free agent arrival Asante Samuel. An improvement from their pass rush and in the secondary will be required to make that next level.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12)
Star Man: Vincent Jackson
It is all change this season in Tampa after last season's shambles which saw them lose their final 10 games with head coach Raheem Morris axed. Former Rutgers supremo Greg Schiano is the man entrusted with the job of turning things around and his no-nonsense approach should shake up the organisation a bit.
Quarterback Josh Freeman looked a star in the making in 2010 but regressed bady last year. His confidence ebbed away and 16 touchdown passes were eclipsed by 22 interceptions so he is going to have to show resilience and determination in a bid to bounce back. Reports say he has worked hard in the off-season and if he can find the magic touch again, Freeman remains a fantastic athletic prospect at the position.
Wide receiver Vincent Jackson arrives from San Diego in a mega bucks deal to give him a legitimate top-class target downfield but the running game has a question or two to answer with LeGarrette Blount careless with the ball on occasions.
Boise State rookie Doug Martin could get the starting job ahead of him while a youthful defense should improve for the new regime - to be honest, it could not get much worse.
New Orleans Saints (13-3)
Star Man: Jimmy Graham
The Saints were on top of the world in 2009 thanks to their victory in the Super Bowl but their off-season has been blighted by the fallout from the bounty programme which has left their coaching staff in tatters and key defensive players like Jonathan Vilma banned for the whole of the season.
But they still have quarterback Drew Brees at the helm after his contract situation was sorted out to the tune of $100m and his experience and leadership is going to be even more invaluable if they are going to enjoy another trip to the post-season.
Brees set the new single-season record for passing yards and that is going to be a tough act to follow but his passing game remains his team's best way to win games despite the departure of wide receiver Robert Meachum to San Diego in free agency.
However, Brees still has an array of talent at his disposal, the pick of which could be tight end Jimmy Graham, who has the speed and athleticism to stretch the field blended with the size to cause mismatch headaches down near the goalline.
Carolina Panthers (6-10)
Star Man: Cam Newton
The Panthers pinned their hopes last year on top draft pick Cam Newton to be their quarterback of the future and he proceeded to smash all sorts of rookie records at the position. He showed tremendous ability to make plays with his feet (14 rushing touchdowns) but gradually learnt to remain more patient in the pocket and he can only improve further with a full pre-season under his belt.
Veteran receiver Steve Smith thrived once again thanks to the arm strength of Newton and will remain the latter's favourite target. He has all the football smarts in the world, runs superb routes and is as tough as any player in the game while Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams provide a powerful double hammer blow in the running game.
If the defense can recover from a speight of in juries to key personnel last season then there is every chance they can edge towards a better record still - but the playoffs could be just out of reach for another season.