Why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can win the NFC South

It’s hard to avoid the common pitfall of expecting a team to “make the jump” after making stellar additions via the draft and free-agency. There are always a few teams which get the hype, sometimes deserved, sometimes not. The ones who fail to meet expectations all have one common theme; fans and media forgot about the other teams in the division. It’s not always what a team did to improve, it’s how much they improved in comparison to those other three divisional foes. For the Bucs, not only did they significantly improve, their competitors failed to match them.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: They can claim “bounty gate” has only made them stronger, but that would be the expected phase of denial a team falling from it’s perch would go through. Drew Brees still does not have a contract and New Orleans seems to be the city of NFL controversy for 2012. There’s the wire-tapping allegations, public disputes between Vilma and Goodell and current interim coach Joe Vitt having to clear his own name. To think none of this serves as just a bit of a distraction is naive.

On the field, Vilma has been replaced by Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne. Both players are tackle machines, but neither possess the “splash play” ability which Vilma has provided during his career with the Saints. They replaced Carl Nicks with Ben Grubbs, but the biggest issue is in the pass game. DeVery Henderson will now be called upon to take on the role of full time receiver opposite Marques Colston. Since 2008, Meachem had scored 23 touchdowns for the Saints. During that same span, Henderson has provided only 7 scores. Darren Sproles led both receivers last year in both receiving yards and touchdowns. Now that Meachem is gone, expecting Henderson to make up for the lost production is stretching it.

Rushing wise, Sproles comes in as the only healthy back and the only one deserving of the lead role. Second year back Mark Ingram will be coming off knee surgery after a season which saw him deal with lingering toe issues. Instead of the smaller Sproles having durability issues, it’s Ingram the team is most concerned about. Chris Ivory is reportedly on the bubble to even make the roster and Pierre Thomas has seen much better days. The Saints will once again be a pass-heavy team, but one which will be easier to contain. With a weak run game and a downgrade out wide, shutting down Jimmy Graham and Colston will be key. Of all the NFC South teams, the Bucs are in best position to ensure that happens. With Barron and Barber at safety, it allows not only for help over the top with Colston, it will allow one of them to assist with Graham if need be. Presuming Aqib Talib avoids the wrath of Goodell, the Bucs are considered to have potentially the best secondary in the division. One which will make life harder for the air assault in New Orleans to be effective.

CAROLINA PANTHERS: Much has been made of Cam Newton’s maturation as a quarterback this offseason. He has reportedly been working on his skills in the pocket and trying to keep his eyes up-field instead of tucking and running. It’s exactly what any franchise wants to hear about their young quarterback, but it’s exactly why he will fail to replicate his success from last year. It was already going to be nearly impossible for him to reproduce his rookie numbers, but a large part of the reason he was effective was because of his wheels. His chemistry with Steve Smith was fruitful in large part because of Smith’s uncanny ability to find open space and stick with broken plays. Newton was adept at scrambling in the pocket after a play had broken down, but always bought enough time for Smith to find a gap in coverage. As the season wore on, those plays were limited, as was Newton’s ability to run the ball. Though he did see big improvement in not turning the ball over, he failed to pass for more than 171 yards his last three games. This offense will still be a great unit, but it’s the defense which will fail them once again.

The Panthers did address an issue when they drafted LB Luke Kuechly, but one man is not going to repair the league’s 25th ranked rush defense. When the Bucs face off with them, the “ground and pound” mantra should be on full display. To make matters better, the Panthers largely ignored their 24th ranked pass defense, drafting only Coastal Carolina corner Josh Norman in the the 5th round of the draft. Carolina will play the “who can score more” game once again, but this time the Bucs have the weapons to match them. They also have a much improved secondary, one capable of keeping Steve Smith somewhat contained.

ATLANTA FALCONS: This will be the biggest obstacle for the Buccaneers this season. They replaced Lofton with Lofa Tatupu, but more importantly kept Abraham, Bierman, DeCoud and Grimes in town. Their 6th ranked rushing defense has stayed largely intact, which does not bode well for the Bucs rushing attack. Instead, the Bucs will have to chip at their 20th ranked pass defense. It will be the same on the opposite side of the ball, the Falcons reportedly seeking to pass the ball more this season and get Julio Jones more involved. The decline of Michael Turner is here, now facing a running back-by-committee situation with Jacquizz Rodgers, a player better known for his explosiveness in open space than his ability toting the rock. As when matching up against the Saints, this will be when the Bucs revamped secondary pays off. It will be their toughest challenge, as they will have to account for Roddy White, Jones, Gonzo and Rodgers out of the backfield. If Gerald McCoy is ready to take the next-step, these will be the games he is most needed.

The good news is the Bucs were one of only three teams to hold Atlanta to 13 or fewer points last season. They know this team well and have a tendency of keeping their games close. Four of the last five games against Atlanta have been decided by 6 or fewer points. This all during the Bucs “down years.” If the Bucs do make the progress expected under Schiano, the games against Atlanta could be the deciding factor in winning the division.

Is the writing of this article a pitfall? Maybe. But it’s also very realistic if the new look Bucs are as advertised. It’s still early, but things certainly look much better than they have in recent years. Not since the early 90’s has Tampa made such an impact in personnel in comparison to the other NFC South teams. It’s no coincidence those are the best years this organization has seen.

P.S. Don’t worry about the Bucs full back situation all you “Full Contact” listeners. Cody Johnson should cement the role and could be the biggest surprise of the season. Watch film of his Texas days and you will see why.