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Friday, August 29, 2008
Little things must go right in the NFC South


Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Jake Delhomme's elbow, Jeremy Shockey's attitude, Jeff Garcia's age and Matt Ryan's contract have been talked and written about repeatedly for the last month.

They could be talked about for the next four months and any of the above could help decide the NFC South title. But, often times, it's not the big stories that determine a season. Often, it's the things that seem subtle that emerge as big topics.

Here's a look at three under-the-radar things that have to go right for each NFC South team if it's going to have a shot at winning the division title.

ATLANTA FALCONS

1. All right, it's a massive stretch to mention the Falcons and a division title. But that's the premise of this column and Atlanta happens to fall first in the alphabetical order. To have any chance to do anything, the Falcons need some leaders. They wiped out Warrick Dunn and Alge Crumpler in the offseason and they're either too young or too old in most positions. If the Falcons are going to show progress, they need guys like running back Michael Turner and linebacker Michael Boley to step up and take charge.

2. In his second season, Jamaal Anderson has to at least show up on the stat sheet. Anderson, Atlanta's first-round pick a year ago, didn't even record a sack as a rookie and you need more than that from a starting defensive end. John Abraham is the starter at the other defensive end and he can rush the passer. But the Falcons need some production out of Anderson. If they don't get it, cornerbacks Chris Houston and Brent Grimes are going to get destroyed. New coach Mike Smith comes from a defensive background and one of his goals throughout the preseason was to prepare Anderson to at least be a factor.

3. Ryan is the poster boy for this franchise, but his smile could get rearranged if rookie left tackle Sam Baker can't protect his blindside. When the Falcons traded back into the first round to take Baker, there were a lot of raised eyebrows around the league. The thought from a lot of personnel people was that the Falcons reached on a guy who has great size, but not a lot of athletic ability. He better show some. If Atlanta's second first-round pick isn't ready to play, its first pick won't have a chance.


CAROLINA PANTHERS

1. Without their best player for the first two games, the Panthers have to find a way to come out of Steve Smith's suspension at least at 1-1. The Panthers open at San Diego, which would have been a tough task even with Smith. Without Smith, the Week 2 game at home with Chicago suddenly looks a lot tougher. Carolina's going to need a fast start by receivers Muhsin Muhammad, D.J. Hackett and Dwayne Jarrett.

2. Smith's going to have to come back better than ever. His training-camp knockout of teammate Ken Lucas set back all the maturing Smith's done over the last five or six years. But this organization hitched its wagon to Smith long ago and he's been given a lot of heart-to-heart talks from ownership, the coaching staff and veteran teammates. If nothing else, Smith has always been one of the most intense competitors in the league. He's got to focus that intensity in a positive way to make everyone forget 20 regrettable seconds in training camp.

3. Right tackle Jeff Otah has to play like a veteran right away. If the preseason was any indication, he will. Otah is huge and should be a perfect fit in the power running game the Panthers want to get back to. It doesn't matter if DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart is carrying the ball -- the Panthers are going to be able to run the ball to the right side.


NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

1. You could look at the schedule and say the NFL did the Saints a favor by giving them a bye and games against Atlanta and Kansas City in the first three weeks of November. But look at what the folks who made the schedule did to the Saints right before that. They've got a road trip to Carolina and a "home" game in London against San Diego. The Saints will go from Oct. 12 to Nov. 24 without playing in the Superdome. The Saints, who opened by losing their first four games last year, have to get off to a fast start because they'll need some momentum to carry them through a brutal midseason stretch.

2. We've heard a lot about Reggie Bush saying he's expecting big things this year. That would make life a lot easier for the Saints and there's no doubt Bush has the potential to do great things. But expecting it all to click in at once isn't realistic. Bush may never be an every-down back and the Saints need a big contribution from Deuce McAllister, who's coming back from ACL surgery. McAllister doesn't need to be the workhorse he was in the past, but 12-15 carries a game would be nice.

3. First-round pick Sedrick Ellis and linebacker Jonathan Vilma were the focal points of the overhaul of the defense. But second-round pick T
racy Porter
will be just as important. He'll either start at cornerback or be the nickel back. Porter needs to give the Saints an instant upgrade over Jason David, who struggled last season.


TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

1. Rookie guard Jeremy Zuttah has to play well right away for the offensive line to live up to expectations. Zuttah was viewed as a project until starter Davin Joseph suffered a foot injury that could sideline him for a significant time. Zuttah's come on fast and one of the best moves the Bucs made was having him room with center Jeff Faine in training camp. Playing next to Faine should help Zuttah's transition.

2. As fans were complaining about the team's failure to get a playmaker in the offseason, the Bucs might have snuck one by them. Receiver Antonio Bryant, who had some problems in his previous stops, has been a model citizen for the Bucs. If he stays free of trouble, the Bucs will have a playmaker besides Joey Galloway.

3. The Bucs need to break the hex that seems to come with the NFC South title. Since the division's inception, no team has won it in back-to-back years. In fact, the trend has been for the champion to have a big drop-off the following year. With most of last year's roster intact and Garcia returning for a second year in the system, the Bucs have a chance to make history.