NFC South: Tampa defense leads as usual

By By Tye Smith

By Tye Smith

Recently considered as one of the worst divisions in football, the NFC South emerged last season as an unlikely powerhouse from top to bottom. The Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons, typically this division’s worst teams, both had great turnarounds last season-the Falcons made the playoffs and the Panthers finished 7-9.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as we all know, won the Super Bowl with vicious defense and an efficient offense. Had the New Orleans Saints not flailed late in the year, the NFC South might have featured three teams in the playoffs.

In a loaded division with several top-tier defenses, a strong offensive attack could make all the difference.

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Coming off their historic run to a Super Bowl championship, the Buccaneers are facing pressure that they have never felt before. Even when the Bucs were good a few years ago, they never shook the label of an underachieving team that couldn’t win in cold weather.

All of that changed with a risky offseason move when the Bucs acquired head coach Jon Gruden from the Raiders in a trade that included future draft picks and a monetary settlement. Rarely are coaches traded like players, but in Gruden’s case, the move made sense. After winning the Super Bowl, the move seems brilliant.

The Bucs’ defense has been the team’s defining characteristic for a long time, and with a roster full of Pro Bowl veterans returning to the lineup, they should be as good as ever. Warren Sapp leads the way as one of the top run stoppers in the league, and Derrick Brooks retains the title one of the hardest hitting linebackers in all of football.

Offensively, the Bucs face a huge question mark at the running back position. Michael Pittman won’t play early on because of off-field legal trouble, leaving Mike Alstott and Thomas Jones as the potential starters.

Brad Johnson will be called upon repeatedly to dig the team out of third-and-long situations, and a strong receiving corps could make the difference.

Predicted Finish: 11-5

2. New Orleans Saints

After crumbling in the final weeks of the regular season the past two years, the Saints are focused on avoiding a late-season breakdown for a third consecutive year.

QB Aaron Brooks suffered a shoulder injury late in the season that contributed to the team’s overall decline, but he was not solely responsible for it.

Head coach Jim Haslett’s job could be in jeopardy if he isn’t able to avoid a collapse at the end of this season.

The Saints’ offense is loaded with talent. Running back Deuce McAllister leads the charge for the running game, and his 100-yard performances against the Buccaneers last season earned him the title of a top-five running back in the NFL.

Receivers Joe Horn and Donte Stallworth are both exciting and reliable, and the addition of tight end Ernie Conwell should be huge in short yardage scenarios.

A revamped defense will be the key to the Saints’ success, especially in the latter stages of the season. After ranking 27th in the NFL in total defense allowed, new faces Tebucky Jones (free safety) and Derrick Rodgers (linebacker) will be relied upon heavily.

Predicted Finish: 10-6

3. Atlanta Falcons

The hopes and dreams of the Atlanta Falcons are tied directly to superstar Michael Vick, often considered the Michael Jordan of football.

Unfortunately, Vick suffered a devastating injury in just the second preseason game of the year. Calling into question the futility of preseason games, Vick’s broken right fibula has largely shattered the playoff hopes of the Falcons organization.

Vick will be sidelined for a minimum of four regular-season games, and the team would be lucky to win even one of its first four games without him.

Leg injuries often nag a player for several months, even after the player has returned to the field under the guise of being “healthy.” In other words, Vick’s injury is likely to last beyond the four weeks he is out.

The Falcons’ running game has been diminished in the offseason by the retirement of fullback Bob Christian and an injury to power back T.J. Duckett.

Warrick Dunn is the team’s only remaining option, and without a solid QB to throw the ball, Dunn is sure to face eight- and nine-man fronts.

The most exciting addition to the team, wide receiver Peerless Price, is unlikely to have much of an impact until Vick returns. In the meantime, the Falcons will struggle with a midgrade defense and without its fallen leader.

Predicted Finish: 9-7

4. Carolina Panthers

Finishing last season with one of the top defenses in the league, the Panthers turned a one-win season in 2001 into a seven-win season in 2002. After the loss of defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the defense will need to recover quickly to provide the backbone for a successful season.

The biggest factor working against the Panthers is QB Jake Delhomme, whose chances of scoring are as good as a nerd’s at a formal dance. The addition of running back Stephen Davis is a critical element to the offense’s shot at success.

The problem will be in Delhomme’s inability to throw the ball, which will leave the line of scrimmage stacked to shut down Davis.

Former Ute Jordan Gross will play a key role in the offensive line, as he is slated to start in the first game of the year. If the Panthers hope to run the ball, they will need Gross to step up big.

Predicted Finish: 6-10

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