NFC South preview (cont.)
What the Bucs do best: Come up big in the clutch.
Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris had the youngest team in the NFL in 2010, but you wouldn't have known it from the maturity level and poise under pressure displayed by the vastly improved Bucs. Four of Tampa Bay's first five victories were by three points or fewer last season, and the Bucs seemed to thrive on their ability to weather some brutal starts (just 43 first-quarter points, fourth-lowest in the league) and then make the plays that count with the game on the line.
All told, Tampa Bay was 5-1 in games decided by three points or fewer last season, and second-year quarterback Josh Freeman engineered five comeback wins in the fourth quarter or overtime (giving him seven such victories in his nascent NFL career). Freeman in the fourth quarter is a different quarterback. Last year he threw eight touchdown passes, with a 97.4 passer rating and a 62.6 completion percentage, in the fourth quarter or OT.
What the Bucs need to improve: The art of the pass rush.
Rebuilding the defensive line has been the single-minded focus at the top of the past two Tampa Bay drafts, and it's still very much an open question as to when the big payoff comes. After a very slow start, Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was just starting to make a little impact last season when he tore his biceps and was lost for the final three games. His fellow rookie tackle, second-rounder Brian Price, missed all but five games last season with a fractured pelvis but just returned to game action last weekend.
This year, the Bucs went for guys who can get to the quarterback, taking Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn in the first round and falling Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers in the second. So far, so good in terms of Bowers and his well-chronicled knee injury, but only time will tell if the Bucs selected the right linemen and have created for themselves a fearsome foursome for the future. Tampa Bay needs someone to help out a pass rush that finished tied for 30th last season, with just 26 sacks.
Which Buc needs to step up: Rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster.
The Bucs took a calculated gamble to let solid middle linebacker Barrett Ruud walk in free agency. Ruud was the team's leading tackler the past four years, but he rarely made big plays and Tampa Bay craved more size and physicality at that key position. Enter Foster, the team's 6-2, 242-pound third-round pick out of Washington.
Foster hasn't completely learned the playbook yet or the intricacies of his position. But he is hitting everything in sight this preseason, and already got fined $20,000 by the league for what appeared to be a pretty clean pop laid on new Patriots receiver Chad Ochocinco in Week 2. On the bigger, more physical front, the Bucs have found their man in Foster.
Predicted record: 8-8
Without a doubt, Tampa Bay's remarkable turnaround story went under-appreciated last season, largely because the Bucs were unlucky enough to have both the 13-3 Falcons and the 11-5 defending Super Bowl champion Saints in their own division. The problem is, the Falcons and Saints are going to be right there fighting it out at the top once again this year, and Tampa Bay might get a bit over-looked again because of it. Like Kansas City in the AFC, I think the Bucs will be a better team than last year's 10-6 version, but they may not get 10-6 results this season. Winning so many close games for a second year in a row is always iffy, and there will be no element of surprise in Tampa Bay's favor in 2011.
What the Panthers do best: Field a three-deep running game.
Carolina was the Black Hole when it came to offense in 2010, but the Panthers still have backfield talent and a running game that's envied by many teams. Carolina finished a respectable 13th in rushing last season (115.4 ypg) despite opposing defenses knowing they couldn't get hurt through the air by the likes of Jimmy Clausen or Matt Moore. Running back DeAngelo Williams re-signed with the Panthers and appears all the way back from the foot injury that cost him all but six games last season. He may never return to his spectacular 1,500-yard, 20-touchdown form of 2008, but he's still a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball.
Carolina also has Jonathan Stewart (770 yards, 4.3 average in 2010) and third-down back Mike Goodson (452, 4.4) to run behind an offensive line that features Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross and franchise-tagged center Ryan Kalil, so the Panthers going with a run-first mentality with rookie Cam Newton at quarterback makes solid sense this year.
What the Panthers need to improve: The use of the forward pass.
Where to begin? The Panthers ranked last in the NFL in 2010 in passing (143.1 ypg), scoring (12.2 ppg), total offense (258.4 ypg) and red-zone TD percentage (30.3). And we mean dead last. As in no one even in the same neighborhood. Carolina scored just 16 offensive touchdowns all season, and just nine of those came via the passing game. Clausen, who started 10 games as a rookie, didn't complete a scoring pass to a wide receiver all year.
Newton, of course, means there's hope for the future, but maybe not the immediate future. He's going to require some time to learn how to throw the ball at the NFL level, and he won't be dealing with the limited playbook that he enjoyed at Auburn University. Carolina doesn't want him running all the time, so Newton will have to fight the urge to take off when things get tight in the pocket. It only figures that improvement in the passing game will be incremental this season.
Which Panther needs to step up: Newton
When you're a Heisman-winning quarterback taken first overall in the draft, you're under a microscope from the minute you hear your name called. And if you're Newton, you have the recent success of first-round quarterbacks like Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford to contend with. The Panthers may intend to be patient with the new face of the franchise, but that's easier said than done in today's media and fan climate.
Newton has hit all the right notes with his teammates, and he's put in the necessary work to get ready to play despite a very abbreviated offseason. But he has looked over-matched at times in the preseason, and his inexperience in a sophisticated passing game has shown. He's expected to start from day one in Carolina, and that's the right call because he needs the work. Maybe the best the Panthers can hope for this year is solid and steady progress, with more and more lights going on for him as his rookie season unfolds.
Predicted record: 4-12.
Thank God for the NFC West, or the NFL might have seen its second 0-16 team in three seasons last year. The anemic Panthers won just twice, both times at home, against the third- and fourth-place teams (San Francisco and Arizona) from the weakest division in the game. Carolina is starting over now with a new head coach in Ron Rivera and a new quarterback in Newton, and I can see them doubling their 2010 win total. That's not a bad first step, given how far the free-fall extended last year. But six games against the likes of the Saints, Falcons and Bucs means playoff contention is still at least a couple years away.
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