When the NFC South was first formed, during the NFL's last expansion and realignment in 2002, Michael Vick and Jake Delhomme were just getting started in Atlanta and Carolina, respectively. Deuce McAllister and Warrick Dunn were the division's most dangerous backs and Muhsin Muhammad was a tough matchup for smaller cornerbacks in Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay. And, of course, the Buccaneers' defense, led by Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp, was the most destructive force in the league, let alone the division.
Since that 2002 campaign, when the Buccaneers represented the new division perfectly by winning Super Bowl XXXVII, each team has evolved and new NFC South challenges have emerged. The Saints have won a Super Bowl, too, and the Panthers have been to the big game. The DeAngelo Williams-Jonathan Stewart tandem in Carolina's backfield became a problem for opposing defenses. Julius Peppers arrived, then left. Matt Ryan replaced Michael Vick and John Abraham became one of the division's best sack artists. And, most significantly, Drew Brees landed in New Orleans and completely changed the landscape in the NFC South.
All four teams in the South continue to evolve, of course, as is inevitable in professional sports. The Buccaneers, who have been one of the NFL's youngest teams for the last three years, hope that evolution continues and that many of their recent arrivals become key figures in the division. As such, here's a look at a half-dozen new one-on-one matchups between Buccaneer players and others in the NFC South that could become critical as soon as this fall.
- Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez vs. Buccaneers LB Lavonte David
Last year, the eternally productive Tony Gonzalez racked up another 80 catches and 875 yards in his 15th year in the NFL. However, in the two games he played against the Buccaneers, Gonzalez totaled just three catches for 26 yards, though he did score one of his seven touchdowns off Tampa Bay's defense. For the most part, that success in containing Gonzalez, for one year at least, was attributed to the work of another ageless player, cornerback Ronde Barber.
The Buccaneers' coaching staff purposely matched Barber up against Gonzalez on as many snaps as possible in those two games, and the plan worked for the most part, though Atlanta's offense succeeded in other ways. This year, Barber may be playing a different role as a potential starting safety, and he's also under the guidance of a new coaching staff. There's a good chance Tampa Bay will look for a different way to keep Gonzalez in check, and that may include a far younger player on the Bucs' defense, rookie linebacker Lavonte David.
David, the Buccaneers' second-round pick, must first win a starting job in the team's linebacking corps, but there's no doubt he'll be given the opportunity to do so. If he is on the field against the Falcons, the Bucs may choose to use his speed and range to counter Gonzalez's forays off the line of scrimmage. That will be a tough task for the rookie, given all the experience Gonzalez has built up in terms of route-running, exploiting zones and positioning his body to keep defenders away from the ball. However, David was considered one of the best pass-coverage linebackers in this year's draft and he may be the Buc defender best suited to take on a rangy tight end.
2. Buccaneers RB Doug Martin vs. Panthers LB Luke Kuechly
This is a matchup of two rookies, so once again both players must earn significant roles with their respective teams before they can do much against each other on the field. Still, both Kuechly (9th overall) and Martin (31st overall) were first-round draft picks in April and both are fully expected to play extensively in 2012.
In Carolina, the Panthers' staff has indicated that Kuechly will begin his NFL career starting at the weakside spot, with veteran Jon Beason remaining in the middle. However, Head Coach Ron Rivera has also indicated that Kuechly could see some action on the inside and that the Panthers might be flexible with Beason as well.
Wherever he lines up, the former Boston College standout is expected to help a Carolina defense that ranked 25th in the NFL against the run last year, giving up nearly 2,100 yards. Kuechly led the ACC in tackles in each of the last three years and is considered a force against the run due to his instincts and sideline-to-sideline range.
The Buccaneers, meanwhile, intend to feature a power rushing attack, which is why the team traded up to draft Boise State's Martin and pair him with incumbent LeGarrette Blount. Kuechly will obviously be asked to stop Blount and the other Buccaneer runners, as well, but it will be particularly interesting to see who can gain the upper hand when Carolina and Tampa Bay's respective first-rounders go head-to-head.
3. Saints G Ben Grubbs vs. Buccaneers DT Gerald McCoy
A massive hole opened on New Orleans' outstanding offensive line this March when the Buccaneers snatched All-Pro guard Carl Nicks away in free agency. That was undoubtedly a tough loss for the Saints – many considered Nicks the NFL's best interior lineman last year – but the team responded well by signing another top guard in free agency in former Raven Ben Grubbs.
Grubbs should step right into that hole at left guard in the bayou and help Drew Brees continue to get outstanding pass protection. Grubbs also comes from a very strong rushing attack in Baltimore, where he blocked for Ray Rice, and he'll try to help the Saints maintain a ground game that ranked sixth in the NFL last year.
Opposing those efforts twice next year will be Gerald McCoy, the Buccaneers' third-year defensive tackle who may be on the verge of a breakout season. McCoy was actually playing quite well near the end of his 2010 rookie campaign and during the first five weeks of the 2011 season, but in each case his year was cut short by a biceps injury. With a full 16-game season, McCoy could easily have the impact the Buccaneers expected when they drafted him third overall in 2010.
Tampa Bay brass has been working hard for several years to rejuvenate the team's pass-rush, which has ranked near the bottom of the league in sacks in recent seasons. Adrian Clayborn showed a lot of promise in that regard as a rookie last year, compiling a team-high 7.5 sacks, but the Buccaneers know that pressure from the middle is crucial to free the ends up with one-on-one blocking. That is where, hopefully, McCoy comes in.
4. Buccaneers WR Vincent Jackson vs. Falcons CB Brent Grimes
There's no use denying it: Brent Grimes has been a Buccaneer killer over the past two seasons.
Grimes had enormous late-game interceptions in both of the meetings between the Bucs and Falcons in 2010, and Atlanta's two victories eventually made the difference in the extremely tight and top-heavy NFC South. Atlanta won the division at 13-3 and the Buccaneers were left just out of the playoff picture at 10-6, missing out on a fifth-level tiebreaker to the eventual champs in Green Bay.
Grimes spent a lot of his time shadowing Mike Williams the past two seasons, which made sense since Williams was the number-one target in Tampa Bay's passing attack. Williams did quite well in his three games against Grimes and the Falcons (Grimes sat out last year's season finale), catching 15 passes for exactly 200 yards and two touchdowns. Still, Grimes made the big plays when the Falcons really needed them.
The Falcons used their franchise tag on Grimes this offseason to make sure he didn't escape in free agency. It will be interesting to see how they use Grimes against the Buccaneers this fall, since former San Diego Charger Pro Bowler Vincent Jackson is joining Williams in Tampa Bay's offense. Jackson and Williams are the presumptive starters for the Buccaneers, and either one could be considered extremely dangerous.
Jackson, with a longer career and more accomplishments already in the books – not to mention deadly downfield speed – will probably be considered the primary threat by Buccaneer opponents. As such, it's possible the Falcons will choose to keep Grimes on Jackson as much as possible. Even if Atlanta plays it straight up, there will certainly be no shortage of one-on-one snaps between Jackson and Grimes, and the winner of that matchup could swing the balance in his team's favor.
5. Panthers QB Cam Newton vs. Buccaneers S Mark Barron
When the Panthers made former Auburn QB Cam Newton the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, skeptics wondered how long it would take Newton to figure out the NFL, or how well the Carolina staff would figure out how to use his varied skills.
In the end, it was opposing defenses that had a difficult time figuring out Newton, who had essentially the best rookie campaign by a quarterback in league history. Newton not only threw for over 4,000 yards and 21 touchdowns but he also ran for 706 yards and a remarkable 14 TDs. The latter stat was a new NFL record for quarterbacks.
Newton's cannon arm combined with his ability to create plays with his legs makes him a significant challenge for any defender. That's particularly true of opposing safeties, however, as they are often asked to quickly diagnose whether a play is a run or a pass and then provide support either way. Ideally, a team facing Newton would want its safeties to be instinctive and good in deep coverage but also able to cover ground quickly and lay a big hit on the ballcarrier.
That's pretty much the scouting report on Barron, whom the Buccaneers selected seventh overall in this year's draft. At Alabama, Barron combined big-play ability in the passing game with a predisposition for massive hits on opponents. Simply put, he's a defensive difference-maker, something the Buccaneers were desperately in search of in a division that includes such offensive difference-makers as Newton.
6. Saints QB Drew Brees vs. Buccaneers CB Ronde Barber (as a safety)
Neither Brees nor Barber are newcomers in the NFC South. In fact, they are just about the most accomplished and respective offensive and defensive players, respectively, in the division. Brees came to New Orleans in 2006 and Barber hasn't missed a game since 1998, so the two have seen quite a lot of each other. Each has been on the winning side of that matchup from time to time.
In the past, however, that matchup was Brees versus a heady, veteran cornerback, one that just happens to have eight of his 43 career interceptions against the Saints, including two off Brees. Now it appears quite likely that Barber will be lining up at safety the next time he faces Brees and the Saints' high-powered attack.
That adds a whole new dynamic to this individual matchup, because Barber's veteran wiles are likely to suit him even better as a centerfielder on the Bucs' defense. There are hardly two more cerebral players in the division than these two, and it will be interesting to see if Brees can exploit Barber the way he has so many other safeties in the past. Perhaps it will be Barber's hard-earned experience over 15 years in the league that will gain the upper hand in that battle of wits.
What makes this even more intriguing is the possibility that Barber, even if he's playing safety in the Bucs' base defense, could move down into his familiar slot position when the team goes to a nickel. If so, he may even get some opportunities to blitz Brees, and so the mind games between the two would take on yet another dimension.