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In the six-year history of the NFC South, no team has repeated as division champions, including two unsuccessful attempts by Tampa Bay to repeat. The 2008 season will be the Bucs' third season defending the NFC South division title.
While they have not retained any of their division titles, the Buccaneers have won the NFC South as many times as the other three teams combined. The Bucs' division titles in 2002, 2005, and 2007 are equal to the total of Carolina, Atlanta, and New Orleans winning one division each in 2003, 2004, and 2006, respectively.
The trend of worst place team one year to first place team the next year has occurred the last five seasons in the NFC South. This year looks to be the season that breaks that tendency. The Atlanta Falcons are in a major rebuilding mode. They cut many of their top veterans, and will have a journeyman or a rookie starting at quarterback in 2008. It’s not a stretch to think that Atlanta will finish short of first place in the division.
That leaves the Saints and Panthers as the top competition to overcome for the Buccaneers to repeat as NFC South champions.
Cover 1 – The Saints Are The Tougher Competition
Right now, the Saints seem to be the popular choice to win the division next year. The reasons for that are their high-powered offense, and additions they made to their defense. The Saints also are considered to have the best quarterback in the division in Drew Brees.
Last season the Saints had the fourth ranked offense in the NFL. They averaged 23.7 points per game and 361.2 yards per game. Their third-ranked passing attack and the Pro Bowler Brees carried the offense. The Saints scored the eighth most touchdowns in the NFL with 47.
Over the past two seasons, the Saints have gotten outstanding play out of Brees. Brees improved on his great numbers from 2006. That season, Brees threw for 4,418 yards and 26 touchdowns. Last year, Brees threw for 4,423 yards and 28 touchdowns.
With the exception of center Jeff Faine signing with the Bucs, the Saints are bringing back a solid offensive line that excels in pass blocking. Last year, Brees was sacked only 16 times on the season. The 16 sacks allowed were the lowest of any team in the NFL. While the line was stellar in pass protection, they have room for improvement in their run blocking. The offensive line should get help in the running game with the return of Deuce McAllister.
Bucs defensive tackle Chris Hovan named McAllister first when asked to name a running back that is a load to handle for a defense. Last year, McAllister played in only three games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. While an injury always causes doubts in a player’s ability to bounce back, McAllister has proven the ability to do that in his career.
In 2005, McAllister only played in five games before a knee injury ended that season. McAllister bounced back in 2006 with 244 rushes for 1,057 yards for an average of 4.3 yards per carry and 10 touchdowns.
Entering his third season in the NFL, running back Reggie Bush has not been the superstar on the field that many people predicted. However with a healthy McAllister, Bush offers a change of pace back that brings a different dimension with his speed compared to McAllister’s power.
Bush’s best attribute so far has been his pass receiving out of the backfield. In 28 career games, Bush has caught 161 passes for 1,159 yards and four touchdowns. Last year, Bush had 73 receptions in 12 games, and probably would’ve have surpassed his rookie total of 88 receptions in 16 games had he not been injured.
The Saints also have a good receiving option for Brees in Marques Colston. Last year, he hauled in 98 passes for 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns. Other than Colston, the Saints have had some past success throwing the ball to Bush and wide receivers Devery Henderson and David Patten. The Saints could use 2006 first-round pick Robert Meachem to deliver on the potential the team saw in him on draft day.
Another aspect that will make the Saints the Bucs' main competition is their additions on defense. In the draft, the Saints selected USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, who is adept at rushing the quarterback. Ellis should combine with defensive ends Will Smith, Charles Grant, and Bobby McCray to give the Saints a solid group of pass rushers. Last season, Smith (7), Grant (2.5), and McCray (3) combined for 12.5 sacks. All three had down years, and it is not unreasonable to think they will bounce back to yield bigger results in 2008. Especially Smith, who is in the final year of his contract.
The Saints addressed their weaknesses at linebacker by trading for Jonathan Vilma and signing Dan Morgan. If healthy, Vilma will be a big improvement over the Saints' previous linebackers. It remains to be seen whether Morgan will be able to stay on the field after years of injuries.
Last year, the Saints secondary was beaten often for big plays. The Bucs exploited that unit in their two wins over New Orleans. Outside of cornerback Mike McKenzie, who is coming off season-ending knee surgery, the Saints had room to upgrade their talent. New Orleans attempted to improve its secondary by signing the Patriots' Randall Gay, the Jaguars' Aaron Glenn, and drafting Indiana cornerback Tracey Porter in the second round. Gay, Glenn, and Porter will battle for second and third cornerback spots with holdovers Jason David and Usama Young. While they may not get a top-flight corner duo, they appear to have decent depth.
The Saints offense over the past two seasons has been noticeably better than Carolina’s offense, and 2008 could be more of the same. The Panthers are depending on the healthy return of quarterback Jake Delhomme. Considering his age, elbow injury, and inconsistent play prior to the injury that could be viewed as a risky plan.
The Panthers also have questions along their front seven. Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers had a disappointing 2007, and the Panthers finished next to last in sacks in the NFL. With that lack of production, one would think the Panthers would acquire some better pass rushers, but they did not. In fact, they traded away defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, and lost defensive end Mike Rucker to retirement.
At defensive tackle, the Panthers have veterans Maake Kemoeatu, Damione Lewis, Darwin Walker, and Ian Scott. Walker and Lewis have produced the most pass rush in the group over their careers, but combined for only 4.5 sacks last season.
The situation at defensive end is about the same as defensive tackle for the Panthers. Peppers went from 13 sacks in 2006 to 2.5 sacks in 2007. If he does not put up numbers like he did in 2006, and the years prior, the Panthers will struggle to improve on their pass rush. Their other defensive ends are Stanley McClover, Charles Johnson, Tyler Brayton, rookie Casper Brinkley, and rookie Hilee Taylor. Last year, McClover, Johnson, and Brayton combined for one sack. One of those players will be starting opposite Peppers.
Considering the lack of pass rush elsewhere on the defensive line, opposing teams should be able to game plan the Panthers' front four pretty easily, possibly give some help to Peppers' blocker and let the offensive line take the rest one-on-one.
Taking into account the issues that the Panthers have, with the Saints high-powered offense, and improved defense, New Orleans will be the team that provides the biggest threat to the Buccaneers repeating as division champions.
Cover 2 – The Panthers Are the Tougher Competition
Already the Saints seem to be the team that is picked the most to win the division in 2008. Prior to last season, many people picked New Orleans to go to the Super Bowl. The reason is because the Saints' explosive offense tantalizes people into thinking they are a better team then they actually are. New Orleans was held back the past couple of seasons by its defense. In 2008, the Saints defense looks vulnerable again.
New Orleans plays a lot of man coverage with its corners, and neither Gay nor Porter seems to be a shutdown man corner. McKenzie is also coming back from a significant knee injury, and if he is a step slower that could be a big problem for the team. Especially considering New Orleans’ safeties Roman Harper and Kevin Kaesviharn were not very effective at bailing out its corners when they were beaten.
The Saints also lost a key cog when the Buccaneers signed Faine. His replacement is the journeymen Matt Lehr and Jonathan Goodwin. Losing Faine will hurt the Saints in their pass blocking, and won’t help them improve on their 28th-ranked rushing offense.
If McAllister is unable to return to his previous level of production, New Orleans will be hard pressed to improve that ranking. Bush has not proven to be a running back that can run the ball for a high number of carries. His 3.7 yards per carry average in his career indicates he has not been able to run productively on a down-by-down basis. In his career, he has 312 carries but his longest rush to date has only been a 22-yard run. Bush's backup, Aaron Stecker, has 60 more carries in his eight seasons, and has produced runs of 59, 42, 32, and 26 yards. After two seasons many people thought Bush would have produced more big plays than he has.
The other weakness of the Saints running game is their propensity to fumble the ball. In seven seasons, McAllister has 20 fumbles. That includes a year that he only played in five games and a season he only played in three games. Bush also seems to be prone to fumbles. In 28 career games, Bush has nine fumbles.
The turnover inclination is not limited to the running backs for the Saints. Last season, Brees threw 18 interceptions. Part of the interception problem may be a lack of skills in the New Orleans' receivers other than Colston. Between lost fumbles and interceptions, the Saints were minus-7 in turnover differential, 24th overall in the NFL. Of the 12 playoff teams, 10 had positive turnover numbers, and the Redskins and Giants were the only teams with a negative turnover differential to make the playoffs.
Another hindrance to the Saints challenging the Buccaneers for the division title is their schedule. At this time of year, the strength of the opponents is unknown, but the logistics of the schedule is set. The Saints lose a home game in late October against the San Diego Chargers when they play that game in London. They also have short weeks twice due to Monday night games, and play a Thursday night game at Chicago in December.
The Panthers on the other hand, have a favorable schedule compared to the Saints. Their only short week is from a Monday Night Football game hosting the Buccaneers.
The return of a power running game is what the Panthers are hoping will bring them back to being a playoff contender. After drafting running back Jonathan Stewart and offensive tackle Jeff Otah in the first round, Carolina has the makings of an improved running game. Tackles Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton are returning from injury, and the team has 2006 first-round pick DeAngelo Williams to rotate with Stewart. They have the talent to form an effective running tandem. With the massive Otah inside and the tackles coming back, the Panthers hope to have the smash-mouth running game that propelled them offensively for a Super Bowl in the 2003 season.
With a better running game, the Panthers will be in a better position to not be dependent on Delhomme and wide receiver Steve Smith. Delhomme is supposedly progressing well in his effort to return in 2008. A rejuvenated running game will allow Carolina to have more third and short situations and limit the potential beating that Delhomme would take. If Delhomme does come back, he is a surefire upgrade over the unsettled quarterback situation that the Panthers had last season. Delhomme will also have an old connection to revitalize this season.
Mushin Muhammad’s return may be felt most in the locker room, where the veteran receiver will provide leadership and direction to many of the young players. Muhammad still has some ability to contribute as a possession receiver in a similar manner to the Buccaneers' Ike Hilliard. Muhammed should also help alleviate the pressure on Smith. Even with the lack of consistent quarterback play, Smith caught 87 receptions for 1,002 yards and seven touchdowns. If Smith could get more help out of his other receivers and quarterbacks, the Panthers would be a much more dangerous offense.
On defense, Peppers is in a contract year and will look to bounce back in order to obtain the big contract that he is seeking. Peppers has some solid players behind him in the Panthers linebackers and secondary. Last year, rookie Jon Beason turned in an excellent season at linebacker making 140 tackles. With more experience, Beason should be able to improve on those numbers.
Despite Peppers' down year, Carolina’s defense ranked 16th in the NFL. If Peppers returns to his previous year’s production and provides a pass rush, the Panthers defense could be a top 10 unit. The fact that they finished in the top half of the league in defense with the second-worst sack output, speaks to the good play of the Panthers linebackers and secondary.
Last year, the Buccaneers delivered with head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen considered to be on the hot seat. This year, Carolina head coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney are thought to be under pressure to produce a winning playoff team or they could be fired. The Charlotte media and fans have mentioned the presence of North Carolina native Bill Cowher as a possible replacement.
With Fox and Hurney fighting for their jobs, and the Panthers trying to win before the window closes on this core group of players, it is conceivable for Carolina to be the biggest challenge to the Buccaneers' repeating as division champions.
It was tempting to select Carolina due to the potential return of a power running game. However, the Panthers have too many "ifs" that need to fall into place for them to be the best team in the division. It is possible that all of those issues will fall into to place for them, but given the injuries and age on their roster, it is hard to feel confident that they will return to the playoffs in 2008.
The Panthers are hoping that: Peppers returns to his former self, Delhomme is healthy, Muhammed returns to be the player he was, their young players produce, they don’t suffer a key injury to a player like Smith or Peppers, and they have some other defensive players break out.
New Orleans is the choice for the South team that the Buccaneers will have the biggest challenge from. The Saints are more of a known quantity. They have the best quarterback in the division, and could produce the same high point total in 2008.
Expect the national media to be firmly aboard the Saints bandwagon for the second straight offseason due to their offensive production, and their defensive acquisitions in free agency and the draft. While the Saints seem to be the Buccaneers biggest competition, they seem to be vulnerable. Their propensity to turn the ball over and give up big plays on defense indicates that the Tampa Bay has a legitimate shot at repeating as division champions.
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