So, with that...
A big question mark for the Falcons this offseason is whether its offensive line could improve enough for quarterback Matt Ryan (left) to set the NFC South division on fire with his passing ability. While starting off brilliantly in 2011, sparking talk of a Super Bowl run, the Falcons’ season ended harshly, with a 24-2 loss to eventual champs the New York Giants in the Wild Card game. Atlanta’s inability to run the ball against the Giants and the defensive pressure put on Ryan in the game solidified concerns about the offensive line. Recognizing that the problem wasn't a lack of talent at the so-called "skill" positions (i.e., quarterback, wide receiver, running back), Atlanta spent its first two draft picks this year on linemen and there is an open competition for at least two spots on the O-line.
Atlanta fans should have breathed a big sigh of relief watching the offensive line’s performance against the always-threatening defense of the Baltimore Ravens. Even though the Falcons lost, Matt Ryan (and backup Curtis Painter) was successful; Ryan threw for 155 yards and a touchdown and after the game said that he was never touched by the Ravens. Against Cincinnati last night, the offensive line has slightly tougher sledding. Keep in mind, though, that Cincinnati had the seventh best defense in 2011. If his protection holds, look for Ryan to gain more and more confidence in the pocket—especially as wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White look poised to have great seasons.
NEXT GAME: @ Miami Dolphins, Friday, August 24th at 7:30 PM ET
I know I’ve heard this several times in the last few weeks, and I’ve heard it before: the most progress you’ll see in a players development is from his rookie year to his second year. On the flip side, you’ll also here talk about a “sophomore slump.” Nowhere is a player’s second year anticipated than in Charlotte, North Carolina, where everyone is anxious to see which direction second-year QB Cam Newton will take in 2012. Newton wowed fans and observers alike in 2011, setting numerous for an NFL rookie, including most passing yards for a season (4,051), most passing yards in a single game (432) and first rookie ever to pass for more than 400 yards in back-to-back games. He didn’t just excel at throwing the ball, either: Newton also set a record for most rushing yards by a rookie quarterback (706) and most rushing touchdowns by a rookie quarterback (14). All eyes will be on Newton early in the season, but a trio of top-tier running backs in DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and new acquisition Mike Tolbert will take some of the pressure of his young shoulders.
NEXT GAME: vs. Miami Dolphins, tonight at 8:00 PM ET
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Bountygate. If there’s ever a story that has held the fate of a team in its grips, it’s Bountygate. Not only does the cash-for-hits scandal directly impact the players and coaches who have received multi-game (and, in the case of head coach Sean Payton and defensive leader Jonathan Vilma, season-long) suspensions, but it has a ripple effect that cascades throughout the organization. Interim head coach Joe Vitt (left) will have to serve his own six-game suspension for his part in the scandal, so the team actually needs to name an interim Interim Head Coach for that period of time.
Quarterback Drew Brees (above), riding a wave of swagger in the wake of his record-breaking new contract, has donned the mantle of Saints’ public face, right along with flaunting the big chip that is on the team’s collective shoulder. Brees and his teammates are angry about his colleagues’ suspensions, and he hasn’t been shy about expressing that anger, particularly in his recent sit-down with Sports Illustrated’s Peter King. He told King that NFL players don’t trust NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell: that the perception among players is that Goodell has reached conclusions about a player’s conduct before an investigation has been completed. Again, having just inked a $100 million deal, Brees shouldn’t have too much to fear for speaking his mind.
So, how will this us-against-the-world attitude translate to the playing field? To borrow from Nietzsche, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and for a squad that’s already pretty strong—stacked with talent at most positions and coming off a 13-3 record in 2011—the rest of the NFL, and particularly the other teams of the NFC South, should be nervous.
NEXT GAME: vs. Jacksonville Jaguars, tonight at 8:00 PM ET
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Everyone had such high hopes for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year: they had an impressive 10-6 season in 2010, but followed up with a horrendous 4-12 record in 2011. Replacing the fired Raheem Morris is new head coach Greg Schiano (right), who is already getting kudos from his players over his coaching style , which is apparently more disciplined and structured compared to Morris. Schiano (hired from Rutgers University) favors a rushing offense, which should take some pressure off of beleaguered quarterback Josh Freeman. Expectations were high for Freeman after his impressive performance in 2010: a 61.4% completion percentage; 3,451 for 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Unfortunately, while his yardage total and completion percentage were up in 2011 (3,592 and 62.8%), he threw more interceptions than touchdowns—22 INTs for 16 TDs. Needless to say, greater things were anticipated for Freeman in his third year. Now, fans and media want to know if Freeman can come back from the cold disappointment of 2011 and whether Greg Schiano is the mentor this still-young quarterback has been looking for.
Aside from a greater focus on the running game, another release valve for Freeman should be in the form of veteran wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who was signed to a 5-year, $55 million contract early in the offseason. Jackson is an eight-year veteran who has been to two Pro Bowls and has had three 1,000-yard seasons. Hopefully, Jackson will bring some stability to the team’s No. 1 wide receiver position, which is something that has been lacking lately.
Another interesting—and late-breaking—development for the Bucs offense is that they are one of the teams interested in signing Jeff Demps, member of the USA’s silver-winning 4x100-meter relay team in the London Games. Demps (right, with relay teammate Justin Gatlin, left), is a former running back from the University of Florida. He announced in January that he was sidelining his football career to focus on track. Now that he’s back from London, he has decided to return to football and, reportedly, is being pursued by Tampa Bay and a few other teams.*
NEXT GAME: vs. Tennessee Titans, tonight at 7:30 PM ET
*Football players turned Olympians aren’t all that uncommon. Click here and here to read the stories of some NFL stars who did just that.