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Bucs' Path to Super Bowl Starts in Tough NFC South

Tanner FlowersCorrespondent IMay 26, 2009

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 16: Defensive end Gaines Adams #90 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sacks quarterback Gus Frerotte #12 of the Minnesota Vikings at Raymond James Stadium on November 16, 2008 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will open this season with a new head coach for the first time since 2002 and a new defensive coordinator and new defense for the first time since 1996.

Jon Gruden will be talking for a living on Monday Night Football this season while first-year head coach Raheem Morris, who made the progression from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator to head coach this offseason, will take over the top job in Tampa.

Jim Bates will take over for Morris—and Monte Kiffin—at defensive coordinator. Bates’ defense requires his players to attack more than the Tampa 2, and the coaches have used this offseason to remove some older star players from the system.

The new coaching staff will look to overcome the late season collapses that have doomed the past two seasons in Tampa, while competing in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, the NFC South.

This season may be very tumultuous in the division, as there are many questions for each squad, and any team could win the division.


Atlanta Falcons

If Morris should want a blueprint for success as a first-year head coach, he should look to Mike Smith and his Falcons. The Falcons won 11 games last year with dominant rushing attack and a good—but not great—defense.

In the offseason, the offense lost veteran right tackle Todd Wiener but gained future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. The addition of Gonzalez will certainly improve last year’s sixth-ranked offense, and he should only help quarterback Matt Ryan develop as a passer.

The turnover on defense was much greater this offseason for the Falcons. Lawyer Milloy, Keith Brooking, Michael Boley, and Grady Jackson are all gone, replaced by rookie William Moore, Mike Peterson, Stephen Nicholas, and rookie Peria Jerry, respectively.

The Falcons have traded a lot of leadership and experience from last year’s defense for speed and youth this year. It is entirely possible that the defense will be more talented this year, but a lack of experience may lead to a step backwards.

The final word on the Falcons is this: If the Bucs want to catch them, they may want to do it now. Atlanta may struggle to reach 11 wins and a Wild Card again this year.

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Carolina Panthers

The Panthers return as division champions with new questions surrounding their defense and still licking their wounded ego after a home drubbing by the Cardinals in the playoffs.

The most pressing issue in Charlotte is what to do with Julius Peppers. The Pro-Bowl defensive end has not signed his franchise tender and has said that he does not want to play for the team anymore.

So far, the Panthers are not budging, instead restating their desire to have Peppers in opponents’ backfields wearing the bluish teal, black, silver, and white this year.

If necessary, the Panthers could possibly ask their first of two second round picks, Florida State defensive end Everette Brown, to pick up some of the slack left by a possible Peppers departure—if that happens, which is still doubtful.

The problem is that Brown slid down draft boards, from a mid-first round pick to a mid-second round pick, apparently because teams saw him as only a situational pass rusher.

The Panthers must also find a replacement for salary-cap casualty and former starting cornerback Ken Lucas. Richard Marshall—who had a fine résumé with 75 tackles, two sacks, and an interception last year—would appear to be the leading contender for that spot.

If Peppers plays with passion for Carolina, who still has a strong rushing attack in place, the Panthers should be the favorites to win the NFC South again this year.

New Orleans Saints

The Saints were a model of consistency—but not excellence—last year. The Saints only had one two-game losing streak last year, but they also only had one two-game winning streak.

They alternated wins and losses throughout their schedule on the way to an eight-win season.

The top-ranked offense definitely was not the problem. The team led the league in total yards, passing yards, and points scored.

Drew Brees came a mere 15 yards shy of breaking Dan Marino’s single-season passing yards record. While a repeat performance may be too much to ask, Brees should still be one of the highest-rated quarterbacks in the league this year.

For the Saints to take the next step and challenge in the tough NFC South, they must improve their running game and defense.

Pierre Thomas is the primary and power back in this offense, but there are rumors that the Saints are interested in free agent Edgerrin James.

James, while not the same back he was in Indianapolis, would lend this attack credibility and keep opposing defenses from keying on Brees.

The defense is in the process of a major overhaul, adding cornerback Jabari Greer, safety Darren Sharper, and rookie cornerback Malcolm Jenkins among others. If this works and the defense is appreciably better this year, the Saints will be a contender.

However, if this defensive plan doesn’t pan out, head coach Sean Payton will be fired, and the Saints will sit at the bottom of the division again.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs lost out on an opportunity at the playoffs last year and then lost defensive leaders Derrick Brooks, Cato June, and Phillip Buchanon in the offseason.

Bates’ uses similar personnel as the Tampa 2—smaller, faster linebackers and defensive backs—but requires more pressure from the defensive ends on the quarterbacks and bump-and-run coverage from the secondary.

This new defense combined with diminishing returns and large contractual demands ushered these players out the door in Tampa.

Aqib Talib and free agent signing Angelo Crowell should be the new leaders on this defense, and Gaines Adams will be expected to nearly double his previous seasons’ sack totals.

On offense, the primary question will be who starts Week One, and will he also be starting Week 17 or beyond?

The Bucs gambled on quarterback Josh Freeman in the first round of the draft. He will be expected to be the Bucs’ quarterback of the future, but there is still some question as to when the future begins.

For now the quarterback position will be held down by either Byron Leftwich or Luke McCown.

Neither is a preferable starter in this league, but if either one can capture some of the flashes they’ve shown in previous seasons—Leftwich in 2005 and McCown in 2007—then they should serve as a fine placeholder for Freeman.

If either falters, then Freeman could be seeing playing time much earlier than expected.

No matter who takes the snaps, free agent running back Derrick Ward should be a major piece of this offense.

Like the Falcons last year, the Bucs will win or lose on the shoulders of their running backs.

With a little luck at quarterback, the Bucs could win nine games this year and battle Atlanta for second in the division and the final NFC Wild Card spot.

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