Fans in Atlanta, Charlotte, New Orleans, and Tampa are expecting great things from each of their team for the upcoming season, and we have heard everything from 10-6 to 12-4 as their final record and them making playoff reservations; are these realistic goals? While it is very likely that two or maybe even three teams that could be playing post-season football, their fans must also realize that each team is going into the 2013 season with questions still needing to be answered. The team(s) that represents the NFC South in the playoffs will be the ones who have done the best job at fixing, or even masking the biggest holes…
As talented as the 2012 Atlanta Falcons were, the one thing that kept them from making it to the Super Bowl was the lack of mental toughness. Versus the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers the team blew leads late in the game and we are left wondering if this team has what it takes to make it the big game and win it. Quarterback Matt Ryan or “Matty Ice” (for his cool demeanor), is at the center of those questions, and in 2013 must get over that hurdle and take the next step to the Super Bowl if he wants to be considered “elite.”
In his five seasons as the Falcons signal caller, his statistics are on par with some of the best in the NFL, but when it comes to the playoffs its seems that the intensity of the moment causes that ice water in his veins to melt. Compared to the regular season, his completion percentage in the 2012 playoffs increased from 68.6% to 70% but his touchdown-to-interception ratio dropped to 2-1 from 3-1 — with two of those interceptions coming in high-pressure moments in the NFC Championship game.
Ryan had a great 2012 season with career highs in yards (4719) and touchdowns (32), but the stats were downplayed because of a major drop off in productivity from the running game and the defense. There was a decrease of 437 yards by the committee of running backs led by Michael Turner and an increase of 419 yards allowed by a defense that began to show its age. Because of these drastic changes in production, General Manager Thomas Dimitroff felt it was necessary to make changes and released fan favorites Michael Turner and John Abraham and signed Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora.
Jackson, while only a year younger than Turner, goes to Atlanta with a lot to prove after never having made the playoffs during his nine seasons in St. Louis. And while Umenyiora is on the downside of his career, he does bring leadership and influence to the defensive side of the ball that has lacked a vocal leader, and being able to do it while flashing two Super Bowl rings will be sure to capture the attention of the players in the locker room.
For those wondering if Carolina Panther middle linebacker Luke Kuechley would have a sophomore slump after leading the NFL in tackles last season with 165, all they need to do is watch the preseason game tape versus the Baltimore Ravens to realize that there will be no drop off for the reigning AP Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Yes it was pre-season, or the NFL version of the MTV reality show “Catfish”, as Robert Littal of Black Sports Online calls it, but no one can deny the dominating performance that Kuechley had one-half half of football –7 tackles, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble and constant pressure that led to two defensive touchdowns.
When General Manager Dave Gettleman invested a first and second round selection on defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short, the organization realized by fortifying the defensive line, the team’s best defensive players linebackers: Kuechley, Jon Beson, and Thomas Davis would be freed up to make more plays.
A stout defense will take the pressure off an offense that is still struggling to find weapons for quarterback Cam Newton and keep the team in playoff talks, a conversation that fans in Charlotte haven’t been involved in since 2008.
New Orleans Saints:
While the “bounty-gate” scandal took a toll on the entire Saints team, it seems to have a more adverse effect on the defense where they were last in points allowed per game (28.4) and in total yards per game (440.1). Because of this Steve Spagnuolo was relieved of his duties and former Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was hired. The first adjustment made to the team was a switch from the traditional 4-3 defense to the 3-4.
While it may take some time for the players to adjust to the schematic change, the Saints fans can rejoice in knowing that they should be better statically. After being last in total yards allowed 31st in points allowed per game, Rex Ryan only needs to get them to the middle of the pack defensively and the could be back to being the super bowl contenders they were just 2 years ago
Not having to play shoot outs and from behind will allow Offensive Coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. to be more balanced in his play calling and take advantage of the running back trio: Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, and Darren Sproles. Of all the teams in the NFC South the Saints ranked third in rushing yard average per game (98.6) and were last in rushing attempts by their top rusher by a large margin with 156 by Ingram.
Putting that into perspective, Tampa Bay Bucs leading rusher Doug Martin had 319 rushes by himself whereas the Saints had 370 as a team. They have the weapons at receiver and tight end but being able to run the ball more effectively will make the team lethal again because defenses will not be able to bring in that extra defensive back for pass protection—thus forcing teams to pick a poison
Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
When the Buccaneers set out to improve their roster for the 2013 season they had a checklist:
Improve defensive backfield: [check] Having the worst passing defense in the NFL was a glaring hole that had to be addressed and General Manager Mark Dominik went all out in fixing it by signing safety Dashon Goldson, drafting cornerback Jonathan Banks and trading for cornerback Darrelle Revis.
Drop the dead weight: [check] Head Coach Greg Schiano’s matter of fact persona did not mesh well with some of the buccaneers players and rather than allow talented but troubled talent players like LaGarrett Blount and Eric Wright mess with the locker room chemistry he was establishing. Now going into his second season, the majority of the players on the roster understand his expectations and have done a good job of buying into his vision.
Solidify the pass rush: [???] This is an aspect of the Bucs team that is still lacking and there is uncertainty if the current starters Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn are capable of changing that perception. Not only did they team allow Michael Bennett to leave in free agency they chose not to pursue an established defensive end to replace him and now are faced with uncertainty at the position. Bowers, who came into camp out of shape, and Clayborn, who is coming off a knee injury, are the only experienced players at a position that could nullify the financial investments made in the defensive backfield, if no pressure is generated.
Being able to address these issues should put the team in position to have a successful season, but will the fans see it considering that the Tampa market has always struggled with fan support at Raymond James, which lead to many of the home games being blacked out.