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Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Leading Questions: NFC South

By Pat Yasinskas

With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each NFC South team as they begin preparations for the 2012 season:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Are they done teasing us?

Since arriving in 2008, coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan have put together four straight winning seasons and made three playoff appearances. That’s for a franchise that never had back-to-back winning seasons before their arrival. But the honeymoon is over for Smith and Ryan.

They suddenly are under enormous pressure because they have yet to win a playoff game. Owner Arthur Blank has made it clear he expects more than just reaching the playoffs. The critics are wondering if Smith and Ryan ever can win when it matters.

The Falcons already have turned to new coordinators (Dirk Koetter on offense and Mike Nolan on defense), have made other changes on their coaching staff and are bound to make some significant personnel moves in free agency and the draft.

It’s become pretty clear the main obstacle for the Falcons in the NFC South is New Orleans. To stay with the Saints, the Falcons have to be more explosive on offense and need to put together a more aggressive defense. There is plenty of talent at the offensive skill positions, but the offensive line needs to be repaired to give Ryan more time to find receivers downfield.

It’s a similar story on defense, where the Falcons have some good individual talent, but weren’t able to play at a consistently high level. Nolan needs to figure out ways to generate more of a pass rush and there is enough talent in the secondary to use more aggressive coverage.

The Falcons are clearly at a crossroads. They need to finally take the big step forward and win a playoff game or two. The status quo or a step back isn’t going to sit well with ownership or fans.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Will they put a defense on the field in 2012?

That’s the plan and any sort of defensive improvement would be a major upgrade from 2011. Ron Rivera’s first season as head coach was filled with all sorts of offensive bright spots as rookie quarterback Cam Newton surprised everyone. The offense is in great shape for the foreseeable future.

But the defense was the reason the Panthers went 6-10 and blew a lot of leads last season. That was disappointing for Rivera, who came with a strong defensive background. But many of the problems were out of Rivera’s control.

Defensive tackle Ron Edwards was a big free-agent signing and was supposed to help Carolina’s problems against the running game. He went down with a season ending injury early in training camp. Linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis also suffered injuries early in the season and the Panthers were forced to play guys they signed off the streets.

The good news is Edwards and Beason should be back at full health. The Panthers also are likely to focus most of their attention in the draft and free agency on strengthening their defense. If the Panthers can just be respectable on defense they might be able to challenge the Saints and Falcons for the NFC South title.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Does Drew Brees have to throw for 6,000 yards for the Saints to get back to a Super Bowl?

Brees set a new record for passing yards in a season and that was good enough for the Saints to go 13-3. But they were bounced in their first playoff game for the second straight year. In some ways, you can make a case that a record-setting season by Brees and the offense went to waste.

That’s largely because the defense has held this team back the past two seasons. When coordinator Gregg Williams arrived in 2009, he created a new climate and the Saints were very opportunistic, coming up with all sorts of turnovers on their way to the only Super Bowl win in franchise history. But the defense wasn’t nearly as productive the last two seasons and Williams is gone now.

The Saints have replaced him with Steve Spagnuolo and he has an entirely different philosophy than Williams. Spagnuolo’s defense doesn’t use a lot of blitzing and depends mostly on pressure from the front four. In theory, he runs a more consistent defense than Williams, but the Saints are going to have to tweak their personnel to make it work. They need to add some more pass rushers on the front four and some athleticism at linebacker.

If they’re able to accomplish that, Brees won’t have to carry this team alone.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Will Josh Freeman bounce back?

The answer to that will be up to Freeman as well as Tampa Bay’s new coaching staff and the personnel department. Freeman took a major step back in what became a disastrous 2011 season. The most shocking part was that it came after Freeman showed all sorts of promise in a 2010 season (his first full season as a starter) in which he threw only six interceptions and led the Bucs to a 10-6 record.

The team still believes Freeman can be a franchise quarterback, but he’ll need some help for that to happen. First off, the Bucs need to put more balance in their offense. Falling behind early last season was a common problem and the Bucs frequently had to abandon the running game. Even when they were in games, their offense was predictable. That largely was due to LeGarrette Blount's failure to show he could be an every-down back. The Bucs at least need to get a more explosive third-down back to pair with Blount or maybe even bring in someone to challenge him for the starting job. The Tampa Bay receivers also had trouble getting separation last season and the Bucs need to add a speed receiver to stretch the field.

Mike Sullivan, who previously worked as quarterbacks coach for the New York Giants, has taken over as offensive coordinator. Sullivan obviously did some good things with Eli Manning. The same kind of thing can happen with Freeman, if the Bucs surround him with more talent at the skill positions.