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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Six New NFC South Matchups

Coming this fall to a division near you: A half-dozen brand-new player matchups that could help determine the outcome of the NFC South.

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Last December, on the final day of the 2014 season, the Carolina Panthers beat the Atlanta Falcons, 34-3, to win the NFC South. While Cam Newton had a fine day, the Panthers' defense was even more impressive, sacking Matt Ryan six times and picking him off twice.

Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei led the charge on that day with two sacks, and while he victimized several Falcons linemen he did a particularly good job of pushing right guard Jon Asamoah into the offensive backfield. Asamoah should get a chance or two to turn the tables in 2015. Both he and Lotulelei are back with their respective teams this year, presumably as starters. It's possible that the battle between the two will once again be a deciding factor in the outcome of the two Falcons-Panthers matchups this fall.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, winless in divisional play last year, obviously hope to do better in 2015. Some of that will come down to existing matchups, like the Asamoah-Lotulelei vowel-fest that was critical when Atlanta met Carolina. Can Gerald McCoy exploit the Falcons' interior line; will Doug Martin be able to elude Luke Kuechly; how successful will Tampa Bay's corners be against Saints quarterback Drew Brees?

Those are important questions. However, the game is constantly evolving. Brees and McCoy and Cam Newton remain the division's stars, but there is an influx of talent in the NFC South every year. The newcomers create a different dynamic in the division and, on any given Sunday, a new set of game-changing one-on-one matchups. Here are six such matchups for the upcoming season, two per each division foe the Buccaneers will encounter:

Tampa Bay vs. Atlanta
1. LB Vic Beasley vs. T Donovan Smith

The Falcons were one of the worst pass-rushing teams in the NFL in 2014 (and for several seasons before that) and the Buccaneers were one of the worst pass-protecting teams. Both clubs made a point of addressing those deficiencies in the draft.

Whether you refer to Beasley as a linebacker or an end or a "Leo" in Dan Quinn's defense, it's clear that he's going to line up wide and go after the quarterback. For the Buccaneers, that quarterback is probably going to be first-overall pick Jameis Winston, and if things go according to plan Winston will have Penn State's Smith protecting his blind side. Both rookies will get a little time to adjust to the pro game before the Bucs and Falcons meet on November 1.

2. WR Justin Hardy vs. CB Sterling Moore

Atlanta's passing attack is rightfully known for the exploits of quarterback Matt Ryan and his two main targets, Julio Jones and Roddy White. Still, it's worth noting that Harry Douglas hauled in 136 passes over the past two seasons. Some of that was in a slot role, and some of that was in place of Jones during a run of injuries.

Ryan will be targeting Jones and White again in 2015, but Douglas is now with the Tennessee Titans. There are many who believe that Hardy, a fourth-round pick out of East Carolina, will step right into that slot role. If so, he may find himself matched up with Sterling Moore, the former Dallas Cowboys cornerback who joined the Bucs as an unrestricted free agent in March. Moore will battle Alterraun Verner, Johnthan Banks and Mike Jenkins for a starting spot on the outside, but there's a very good chance he ends up as the nickel corner and finds himself in direct opposition with Hardy and other slot receivers.

Tampa Bay vs. Carolina

1. T Michael Oher vs. DE Jacquies Smith

Tampa Bay's pass rush against Carolina's offensive front isn't exactly what analysts would refer to as "strength-on-strength." What's interesting about that situation is that neither team took the opportunity to address that issue with its most valuable assets.

The Bucs picked first overall in the draft and went after a potential franchise quarterback in Jameis Winston, following up with two presumptive starters on the offensive line to give Winston time to work. The Panthers took a guard and a receiver in the first two rounds and only addressed the O-Line with a third-round guard. That means they are likely to trust Cam Newton's back side to Michael Oher, who spent last year with the Titans after five seasons in Baltimore. If Oher is indeed the Panthers' back-side protector for Newton, he'll probably be matched up with Jacquies Smith, who emerged out of nowhere last year to be a strong pass-rusher.

2. TE Greg Olsen vs. LB Kwon Alexander

If this comes to pass, it's a tough first-year assignment for Alexander, the Buccaneers' fourth-round pick out of LSU.

Greg Olsen cracked 1,000 yards for the Panthers last year and is obviously a favorite target of Cam Newton. Olsen is a vastly underrated NFL force who has topped 800 yards the past three years and has recorded at least five touchdowns in seven of his eight pro campaigns. That last note is telling, a red flag for NFC South opponents.

Could Alexander be the Buccaneers' Olsen antidote? The rookie will have to win a starting spot first, but he does have good speed and coverage skills. Stopping Olsen will probably be a task shared by several Tampa Bay defenders, but Alexander has a chance to help Tampa Bay neutralize one of Carolina's most prolific players in the passing game.

Tampa Bay vs. New Orleans

1. CB Brandon Browner vs. WR Mike Evans

The New Orleans Saints have gone out and acquired cornerbacks before – Champ Bailey, Keenan Lewis, Chris Carr – and ended up with mixed results. That's to be expected; it's a volatile position and hitting on Lewis is probably enough to counterbalance any misses.

The signing of Browner this offseason, on the other hand, seems like a specific answer to the proliferation of huge and athletic wideouts in the NFC South. Tampa Bay's starting duo of Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans – two guys rolling in at about 6-5 and 230 pounds – is as good of a reason as any to counter with tall defensive backs. Tall cornerbacks who can move are difficult to find, but the 6-4, 220-pound Browner made the Pro Bowl in 2011.

2. RB C.J. Spiller vs. LB Lavonte David

The NFC South wasn't particularly active in the early days of the unrestricted free agent market this year. New Orleans made a splash with its trade of tight end Jimmy Graham, but none of the four South teams made news in the first few hours of the open market.

However, the Saints might have made a sneakily-important pick-up in the signing of former Bills running back C.J. Spiller. Spiller was injured and not particularly good in 2014, but he had roughly 2,200 rushing yards in the 2012-13 seasons combined, averaging about 5.3 yards per carry. If there's a new weapon in the Saints backfield, that's the purview of Lavonte David, Tampa Bay's sideline-to-sideline linebacker who seems to be able to diagnose where running plays are going before they start. Spiller is capable of breaking off big runs; David needs to make sure he doesn't get that opportunity.

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