by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

Throughout the month of August, TGS will be previewing each of the NFL division races for 2013, as well as providing a QB depth chart for the preseason games. Next up for our previews will be the NFC South, presented in order of predicted finish, with 2012 straight-up, pointspread, and “over/under” records included...

NEW ORLEANS (Straight-Up Record 7-9 in 2012 Regular Season; Pointspread Record 8-8 in Regular Season; Over/Under 11-5 in Regular Season)...If you start with the premise that NFC South champions never repeat (which is true), you quickly get to revived New Orleans at the top of this group. Beginning with the inception of the NFC South in 2002, the winners have been Tampa Bay (won the Super Bowl), Carolina (lost the Super Bowl), Atlanta, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Carolina, New Orleans (won the Super Bowl), Atlanta, New Orleans, and Atlanta in 2012. So, does that rule out the defending Falcons as the likely South champ this season?

Why not, as New Orleans endured such a bizarre, disjointed, post-bounty scandal 2012 campaign, during which demanding and Super Bowl-winning coach Sean Payton was banned from team activities and during which run-game coordinator Aaron Kromer was the acting head coach for the first six games and then long-time assistant HC Joe Vitt for the next 10. With Drew Brees around to pass for a record 5177 yards and 43 TDs (extending his streak to a record 54 games with at least one TD pass), the Saints weren’t without leadership on the field—at least on offense.

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But the overwhelmed defense was found lacking in terms of personnel, direction and execution, as New Orleans finished dead last in yards allowed with an NFL-record 7042 yards. The Saints were “sinners” vs. opposing attacks, finishing last in rush defense and 31st vs. the pass, 31st in points allowed (28.4), and 25th in sacks collected (with only 30). Along the way, Brees hit 68% and those 43 TDP, but also suffered 19 ints., many of those while playing from behind. The Saints’ stoppers were ripped for a terrible 5.2 ypc, again worst in the league. And a hard-luck 0-4 start to the campaign made a creditable 7-5 last 12 games add up to 7-9 overall, far short of the playoffs.

Payton has subsequently admitted that the year away from the team has given him both a new perspective and a chance to observe trends and developments that he might have missed were he totally absorbed in the middle of his own team’s progress. And, when he returned to take over the team, Payton had three changes in mind. First, the Saints must run the ball better to balance their offense and reduce the requirements on the wonderful Brees. Second, the improved ground attack should both protect the defense and help the offense reduce its drive-killing interceptions (only Arizona and K.C. had more). And, third, the Saints had to get more physical and athletic on defense in order to stop the run, get more sacks, and get off the field.

To run better, Payton--a Bill Parcells disciple--has decided to be much more demanding of former No. 1 pick Mark Ingram (only 602 YR last year) before turning to explosive but tiny third-down back Darren Sproles. To get re-started on defense, Payton has dumped N.O.’s 4-3 has brought in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan from the Cowboys to install an aggressive 3-4 scheme. To restore physicality and to help stop the run, the Saints found themselves fortunate to land 6-4, 346 NT John Jenkins of Georgia available on the third round of the draft. The mammoth run stuffer has not disappointed early. And, last year’s No. 3 pick, 6-5, 318 Akiem Hicks from Regina, Canada, has looked very nice alongside the surprisingly-athletic Jenkins. Throw in developing DE Cam Jordan (8 sacks LY), and all of a sudden defensive coordinator Ryan had a potentially-intimidating front three. That has made the move of former 4-3 DE Will Smith to pass-rushing 3-4 OLB seem all the more natural. And No. 1 pick TY Kenny Vacarro of Texas has turned out to be a promising intimidator at safety. It’s still a work in progress, but the 2013 defense promises to be substantially better than 2012's. And, the feeling here is that Payton is the best coach in the division. With Brees around and more effective running, the Saints are likely to once again prevent a repeat champion in the NFC South.

ATLANTA (SUR 13-3; PSR 9-6-1; O/U 5-11; Lost 28-24 vs. San Francisco in NFC Championship Game)...The Falcons last season failed to capitalize on a great opportunity to get to the Super Bowl. They finished a dominating 13-3 in the regular season to grab the top seed in the NFC; they edged burgeoning Seattle in the divisional round of the playoffs; and they jumped out to a 17-0 lead over San Francisco and young QB Colin Kaepernick in the NFC Championship Game. Atlanta even limited Kaepernick to 21 YR in the contest. But the young S.F. QB kept his poise and hit clutch passes from the pocket to send the 49ers to the Super Bowl and the Falcons’ to owner Arthur Blank’s Home Depot stores to begin their offseason remodeling.

There is no doubt that Matt Ryan has long ago “arrived” as a big-time NFL QB, lighting up opposing defenses to the tune of 68.6%, 4719 YP, and 32 TDs (with 14 ints.) in 2012. His top targets of Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez combined for a prolific 264 recs. and 25 TDs, with the 6-3, 220 Jones still having a substantial upside with potential to dominate. Ryan and the Falcons’ no-huddle aerial assault rank among the best in the league. But the team still has questions to answer, as Ryan is only 1-4 straight-up in the postseason.

After reviewing last year, the Falcon brain trust decided the team was lacking in three areas. The running game, led by Michael Turner (800 YR, only 3.6 ypc) had declined, especially considering that most defenses were primarily geared to counter Atlanta’s passes. In fact, Atlanta had only 37% running plays last season, an imbalance that caught up to the Falcs when they were out-rushed 149-81 by the 49ers in Atlanta’s playoff loss. Next, Atlanta’s pass rush was not up to playoff quality, collecting only 29 sacks (28th in the NFL) in the regular season. And, third, injuries, age, and free agency had robbed Atlanta of some of its top cover people in the secondary.

Thus, the Falcons’ key moves in the offseason have been virtually self-explanatory. The addition of free-agent RB Steven Jackson from the Rams to add quickness to the ground game; the addition of FA veteran DE Osi Umenyiora from the Giants to spark the pass rush; and the drafting of first-rounder Desmond Trufant from Washington and second-rounder Robert Alford from Southeast La. to add youth and speed at the corners.

Falcons’ coach Mike Smith has shown himself to be among the best since taking over the team five years ago. However, the efficacy of those three moves for this year’s team must be viewed with some skepticism. For example, Jackso--despite his impressive eight straight 1000-yard seasons--is in his 10th year of NFL pounding and has frequently dealt with injuries in recent campaigns. Unmenyiora is even older (31) and has seen his sack totals drop from 11½ to 9 to 6 the last three years. And a weak pass rush combined with young CBs has rarely been a recipe for playoff success in the NFL.

Another fine season seems in store for the Falcs, followed by another postseason appearance. But history says there will be no repeat NFC South title in Atlanta, and therefore a tough road is likely for the Falcs in the playoffs.

CAROLINA (SUR 7-9; PSU 9-7; O/U 8-7-1)...Ultra-talented QB Cam Newton admits that going into the 2013 season, he still has leadership issues. It can be asked, is that not the first step toward improving leadership? Carolina fans, team officials, his Panther teammates, and even Newton himself agree that the QB’s demeanor during tough times has been a negative for the team, which has gone 6-10 and 7-9 in Newton’s first two seasons. Cam has 40 TD passes, but also 29 interceptions and 5 lost fumbles during the span, during which he admittedly has not handled the losses and his own mistakes very well.

After all, Newton has had very little experience losing. As a freshman backup to Tim Tebow at Florida, the Gators went 9-4. As a soph, Newton was injured early in the season as Florida went 13-1 and won the BCS title. At Blinn College in 2009 (after Newton was ousted at UF for stealing a student’s lap-top), Newton led his team to an 11-1 mark and the national junior college championship. And at Auburn in 2010, he paced the Tigers to a 14-0 mark and the BCS title. That’s 25-1 for Newton as a starting QB the previous two years before he arrived in Charlotte as the Heisman Trophy winner and top overall pick in the 2011 draft.

Thus, the 34 turnovers, 19 NFL defeats, and numerous missed open receivers weighed heavily on the young QB (he’s still just 24), who got down on himself, and sometimes his teammates. Says Newton, “Oh, man, I had it bad.” But Newton now contends--that with the help of his coaches and few teammates--he is ready to turn the corner. Or at least to try diligently to do so.

Newton now promises to have a functional “next play” attitude. Thus, in 2013 Panther fans can look for better body language from their QB during hard times. Less sulking on the sideline. Better leadership in the huddle. A greater willingness to “turn the page” and move on. Newton credits new offensive coordinator Mike Shula (QB coach LY) and QB coach Ken Dorsey (Panther scout LY) for helping elevate his mental approach. Both coaches enjoyed considerable success as college QBs (Shula at Alabama, Dorsey at Miami) despite their limited arm strength and lack of running ability. Their task this year is to improve the play of their third-year, 6-5, big-time threat who has a powerful arm and who also has run for more than 700 yards in each of his two seasons (not to mention 22 rushing TDs). Rookie speedster Kenjon Barner from Oregon appears ready to help the Panthers’ already-deep and often-deceptive ground game.

The proof for Newton, of course, will be in the performance. But there is plenty of promise in Charlotte going into the season. First of all, the Panthers ended last season with a four-game winning streak. Too bad it came after their desultory 3-9 start. Second of all, management has added upward potential to Carolina’s WR corps, picking up Domenik Hixon from the Giants and Ted Ginn Jr. from the 49ers in free agency. Third, OL leader and C Ryan Kalil (who foolishly predicted a Super Bowl appearance last year) is back in action after playing only five games last season due to a dreaded Lisfranc (i.e., midfoot) injury. And, fourth, HC Ron Rivera, the former aggressive LB with both the California and Chicago Bears, believes his team has the makings of one of the better defenses in the NFL.

The Panthers boast a pair of underrated edge pass rushers in DEs Chris Johnson (12½ sacks LY) and Greg Hardy (11 sacks). DT is also a team strength, with top draft picks Star Lotulelie and Kawann Short joining veterans Dwan Edwards & Colin Cole (a combined 10½ more). 2012 top draft pick Luke Kuechly turned his 164 tackles and 2 ints. LY into the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. This year, fifth-rounder A.J. Klein (Iowa State) and free-agent signee Chase Blackburn (via the Giants) give the Panthers some quality LB depth in the event injury issues again hound the talented Thomas Davis (105 Ts LY) and Jon Beason (a plus if healthy). Athletic (but brash) second-year corner Josh Norman and FA safety Mike Mitchell (from salary-cap crushed Oakland) appear ready to plug a couple of holes in the secondary.

Rivera, in his third season, knows he is on the hotseat. And recently-elevated GM Dave Gettleman has made it known to the both his coaches and his players that it is time for the Panthers to start winning more games, with many veterans having had to absorb pay cuts or restructure their deals in the offseason.

We have little doubt that the Panthers are on the right track. The front seven on defense could be extra gnarly. Carolina will surprise some contenders this season, and will likely be in contention for the playoffs. But Newton (just 2-12 in games decided by 7 points or fewer), despite his gifts, is still not in the class of Brees & Ryan in terms of leadership, reading defenses, and anticipation. So if Newton can avoid the “snowball effect” during adversity this season, Carolina might catch one of the NFC South’s big two. But that’s something the talented QB still has to prove.

TAMPA BAY (SUR 7-9; PSR 9-6-1; O/U 7-8-1)...In this division where a different team has won every year since the inception of the NFC South in 2002, Tampa Bay has now gone the longest (since 2007) without wearing the crown. Each of the Bucs’ South foes has captured the title in the interim. T.B. made some strides in 2012 in the first year under Greg Schiano. But this is still a team in transition. And inconsistency at QB and a non-intimidating pass rush figure to add up to disappointment once again for Tampa Bay in this four-team group.

Rookie RB Doug Martin, a 5-9, 215 ball of muscle, was a revelation last season, rushing for 1454 yards and catching 49 passes out of the backfield. However, as defenses began to focus on Martin, the Bucs began to fade to a 1-5 finish to their 7-9 campaign. Martin was held to fewer than 70 YR in 5 of the team’s last 7 games. During those seven, QB Josh Freeman had 9 TD passes vs. 12 interceptions. Overall, the fourth-year QB hit only 54.8% for the season, with 27 TDs and 17 ints., with 2 lost fumbles despite passing for a worthy 4065 yards.

As always, the QB got too much of the blame for the Bucs’ 9 losses. There were injuries to the OL and a receiving corps that lacked depth and star quality beyond 6-5 former Charger Vincent Jackson (723 recs., 1384 yards, 8 TDs, 19.2 ypc) and WR mate Mike Williams (9 TDC). The same problem could be in store this season unless the likes of former Cowboy WR Kevin Ogletree, former Packer TE Tom Crabtree, and former Stanford speedster Chris Owusu (concussion history) come through.

Tampa Bay was last in pass defense last year (even worse than the worst-in-NFL-history Saints’ defense), partly because of a pass rush that got to opposing QBs too infrequently (the Bucs were 30th in sacks with only 27) and partly because of a shake-up in the secondary. After last year’s move of future Hall of Fame CB Ronde Barber to safety and the midseason trade of troubled CB Aqib Talib to New England, the Bucs’ remaining young CBs frequently found themselves overmatched.

This year’s secondary has been girded by a major influx of talent, including highly-publicized cover corner Darrelle Revis (trade from the Jets), who is coming off a torn ACL. Schiano seems content to bring along Revis slowly until the former all-pro has proven himself healthy and able to match up with his usual effectiveness. Free-agent dollars landed solid 49er safety Dashon Goldson, a leader and hard hitter. Also, the Bucs’ first pick in the draft was tall and promising 6-2 CB Jonathan Banks from Mississippi State. Add to that group last year’s top pick of Alabama S Mark Barron, and the Bucs appear to be well set in the secondary for the near future. Moreover, young LBs Lavonte David and Mason Foster are two of the best young defenders in the league.

It’s the front four that is the question mark on this defense. DT Gerald McCoy (5 sacks last year) showed some development as a rusher last season, which was his third after being the third overall pick in the draft in 2010. DE Adrian Clayborn (7½ sacks in 2011) missed virtually all of LY with a knee injury. But DE Da’Quan Bowers has only 4½ sacks in his two years, while DE Michael Bennett has taken his team-leading 9 sacks to Seattle. Not good. Schiano was usually able to develop a quick pass rush during his 11 years at Rutgers. And he’ll have to do such again if he wants to help out his improved secondary.

Schiano has repeatedly expressed confidence in Freeman, who has the height (6-6) and arm strength to succeed in the NFL. But he also spent a third-round pick on N.C. State’s tall, promising pocket passer, 6-7 Mike Glennon. There is a message included in that pick for Freeman, as Schiano is not known as the most patient of coaches (e.g., last year’s rough-house attack in Tampa Bay’s Game Two loss vs. Eli Manning when the then-Super Bowl-defending Giants were in “victory” formation). New Orleans, Carolina, and Tampa Bay all finished 7-9 last season. But the first of those two teams seem certain to improve, while the Bucs must hope that nothing happens to RB Doug Martin or WR Vincent Jackson.


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