NFL preview 2012: The NFC South


Even without suspended Coach Sean Payton, Drew Brees is more than capable of keeping the offense together. Here Brees hugs interim coach Joe Vitt, who will also miss six games. (Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press)
September 5, 2012

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Despite all the offseason distractions of Bounty-Gate, the Saints remain a well-oiled machine as long as Drew Brees is healthy and happy.

The Pro Bowl quarterback no doubt has been smiling ear to ear since he signed a five-year deal worth $100 million, and even without suspended coach Sean Payton, Brees is more than capable of keeping the offense together.

The defense may be another story without linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who also is suspended for the season because of his alleged involvement in the bounty scheme. There’s also a new defensive coordinator in Steve Spagnuolo.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: DT Akiem Hicks.

ATLANTA FALCONS: All indications are first-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is planning to open up the passing game with the installation of a three-wide receiver formation as part of his regular package.

That means quarterback Matt Ryan will be asked to do much more, but he certainly has the resources around him to produce perhaps the best season of his career, starting with wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones.

The defense has a new coordinator in Mike Nolan, who may work variations of the 3-4 alignment into Atlanta’s base 4-3 scheme. A notable offseason acquisition was cornerback Asante Samuel.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: C Peter Konz.

CAROLINA PANTHERS: Quarterback Cam Newton had a transcendent rookie season with 4,051 passing yards and 21 touchdowns, although he did throw 17 interceptions. He also had 706 rushing yards and a team-high 14 rushing touchdowns for the NFL’s fifth ranked scoring offense.

The defense, however, finished 27th in the league in points allowed and 28th in yards as it struggled to generate a consistent pass rush. Sean McDermott joins Coach Ron Rivera’s staff after the Eagles dismissed the defensive coordinator following last season.

Injuries also ravaged the defense, but linebacker Jon Beason, among others, is back after tearing his Achilles’ last September.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: LB Luke Kuechly.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: The Buccaneers closed the regular season by losing their last 10 games in a row, prompting a shakeup that included the firing of coach Raheem Morris, who found work as a defensive assistant with the Washington Redskins.

Greg Schiano was hired to replace Morris and is one of many new faces, including wide receiver Vincent Jackson and tight end Dallas Clark. Jackson gives quarterback Josh Freeman a downfield threat the team had been lacking for years.

One of Schiano’s top priorities has been addressing the defense, which last season gave up a franchise-worst 494 points and allowed at least 40 points in four games, the most in team history.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: S Mark Barron.

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