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Kaufman: Pressure building in NFC South

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Published:   |   Updated: May 19, 2013 at 04:20 PM
TAMPA -

High pressure is welcome news if you're an angler checking the weather forecast.

But for competitors in the NFL, high pressure may be crippling.

Doubts can creep in when you are an acknowledged target, and the NFC South offers up several figures feeling the heat heading into the summer.

“You either feel pressure or you apply pressure,'' former Bucs coach Jon Gruden said.

There is one division coach assigned to the top five in the pressure cooker, along with four players with a lot to prove this fall.

Standing tall at 6-foot-6 at the top of the list is Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman, who set franchise marks for passing yards and touchdown throws in 2012, even as he generated fresh doubts about his future among fans and management.

“I think Freeman was the biggest disappointment of the season's last quarter,'' ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski said. “He has a lot of repairs to make in the offseason.''

Freeman's puzzling slump coincided with Tampa Bay's 1-5 finish.

Another NFC South quarterback under scrutiny is Carolina's Cam Newton, the first overall pick of the 2011 draft.

Newton was eventually named offensive rookie of the year and made the Pro Bowl as the Panthers went 6-10, but he struggled early last season and Carolina needed a 5-2 finish just to close at 7-9.

Newton, who has thrown 40 touchdown passes and scored 22 times on the ground, has all the skills. The Panthers haven't surrounded him with a lot of weapons, but Newton is supposed to make everyone around him more effective — and that hasn't happened in two years in Charlotte.

Next up is veteran defensive end Osi Umenyiora, signed to a two-year, $8.5 million deal by the Falcons as a free agent from the Giants. Umenyiora, 31, has been undermined by injuries the past few years, but Atlanta is counting on him to provide a pass rush off the edge following John Abraham's release.

“I feel like I can really help this team,'' said Umenyiora, who isn't surrounded by the talent up front he grew accustomed to in New York. “I'm thankful to come here and help this team win.''

The Falcons have won plenty. Now, it's up to Umenyiora to help put them over the top.

Protecting the blind side of Drew Brees is a big deal in New Orleans, where the Saints will be forced to win the 30-27 games until their porous defense stiffens. Following Jermon Bushrod's free-agent departure to Chicago, the Saints are seeking a new starter at left tackle.

First in line is Charles Brown, a second-round pick in 2010 who has started only eight NFL games.

“It's definitely time for me to step up and prove I can protect Drew back there,'' Brown said.

Despite attempting more than 600 passes per season, Brees has been sacked an average of only 20 times during his stellar seven-year career in New Orleans.

Mr. Brown, you've got a lovely set of expectations.

Rounding out the All-Pressure group within the NFC South is Atlanta coach Mike Smith, who finally posted his first career playoff win when the Falcons rallied past Seattle after seeing a 20-point lead disappear. The following week, Atlanta bolted to a 17-0 advantage before the 49ers pulled out a 28-24 victory in the NFC title game.

“Our players are disappointed, but not discouraged,'' Smith said after the crushing setback at the Georgia Dome.

Arthur Blank is not an impulsive owner, but his patience is wearing thin. Tight end Tony Gonzalez returned for a 17th season because he believes Atlanta is talented enough to win it all.

So, too, does Mike Smith's boss.

ikaufman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7833

Twitter: @IKaufmanTBO

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