NFC South Inside Slant

From the SportsXchange, here is the Inside Slant on the NFC South:

Atlanta

Quarterback Michael Vick will enter a plea of guilty next Monday in a deal struck with federal prosecutors for dogfighting charges.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank strongly hinted that if Vick did reach a plea agreement, that the league and the team would quickly render decisions regarding Vick's future playing status. Blank did not say he would immediately cut Vick, but there were hints to a possible indefinite suspension by the league that could lead to Vick's eventual release by the team.

Michael Vick. (Getty)
Vick currently has been banned from the Falcons by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell until the league completes an investigation as to whether Vick violated the NFL's policy relative to player conduct.

"As facts come out, we will absorb the facts, study the facts, research them and then we'll move very decisively," Blank said before Friday night's preseason game against Buffalo.

Three of Vick's longtime friends and co-defendants -- Tony Taylor, Purnell Peace and Quanis Phillips -- have pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in the dogfighting case and have fingered Vick as the money behind the operation and a co-executioner of dogs.

The information provided by Phillips and Peace in their statement of facts Friday strongly bothered Blank and prompted him to speak out strongly against Vick, a player he once treated like a son.

"Today's two statement of facts by the co-defendants are troubling and very disturbing," Blank said Friday. "It's certainly not what we expected and it's terribly distressing."

Players and coaches, as much as they have tried, simply haven't been able to fully step away from Vick's situation. During a team meeting Thursday, coach Bobby Petrino told players that there was a good chance that Vick would cop a plea deal Friday. When it did not happen, one of the first things he did once the Falcons defeated Buffalo 13-10 in a preseason game, was to tell players that the Vick situation was at a "stalemate" and that they had to continue to deal with it.

Carolina

So bad were the Carolina Panthers on Friday night against the Philadelphia Eagles that coach John Fox delayed an early departure from training camp.

Fox had planned to break camp early on Sunday, but made the players stay in Spartanburg, S.C., for two more days.

He simply couldn't reward them for a terrible outing.

Fox said there's no reason to push the panic button, but admitted, "I don't think we got better. If anything, we got a little worse."

Any optimism or enthusiasm from the preseason win over the New York Giants a week earlier was quelled after the Eagles dominated the Panthers on both sides of the football and built a 24-0 lead in the first half.

Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith. (Getty)
"It was like we were playing in quicksand," Fox said. "We didn't play very good particularly in the passing game and in pass defense."

In his first five offensive possessions, quarterback Jake Delhomme was 3 for 10 for 14 yards with three sacks, a fumble and an interception that was returned 40 yards for a touchdown by his old nemesis, Eagles cornerback Lito Sheppard. It was Sheppard who picked off Delhomme in the end zone in the fourth quarter last December to seal the Eagles' 27-24 win, dealing a major blow to Carolina's playoff hopes.

Delhomme did manage to lead the Panthers to a field goal against the Eagles second-team defense late in the first half, going 6 for 9 for 64 yards.

But that was little consolation.

"We didn't play well, to put it mildly and to put it kindly," Delhomme said. "We didn't start off fast and we certainly didn't finish that way. It was very disappointing, and you don't want to say, 'Aw, it was just preseason.' We played awful."

Carolina's running game, which went over 100 yards in the first half last week, had just 36 yards on eight carries at halftime.

The big problem is the Panthers couldn't sustain a drive, failing to convert their first five third-down conversions, a major Achilles heel last season.

Part of the problem may have been a change in the offensive line. With rookie Ryan Kalil making his first start at center and Justin Hartwig moving over to right guard, a position he's unfamiliar with, the Panthers looked out of sync right from the start.

But offensive tackle Jordan Gross had a hard time pinpointing what went wrong.

"I said last week I was glad we did well, but I don't think that meant we we're great," Gross said. "This week we didn't do well, but I don't think that means we're terrible. We're probably somewhere in between right now."

Carolina's defense was no better.

In his first game since injuring his knee last November, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb dissected Carolina's defense, completing 6 of 9 passes for 138 yards while leading his team to two scoring drives.

"Anytime you start off like that and dig yourself a 10- or 17-point hole, that's tough," said new Carolina safety Chris Harris, who struggled in his second game with the Panthers, allowing a 59-yard pass to tight end Matt Schobel which set up one score.

The Panthers are just happy they have a few more weeks to get ready for the St. Louis Rams on Sept. 9.

"I don't like to lose, but I would rather it would happen in the preseason," said defensive tackle Kris Jenkins. "I would rather that happen now than in the regular season. I think that is the upside to it. Preseason is the chance to look at those things and take care of them before you go into the regular season. I'm confident that we have a couple of weeks to go back and correct those issues."

New Orleans

He might not readily admit it, but Saints coach Sean Payton has to like where his offense is a little more than halfway through the preseason.

After a sluggish performance in their exhibition opener in the Hall of Fame game, which was understandable because they'd only been in training camp for just over a week, the Saints picked up some momentum in their last two preseason games against Buffalo and Cincinnati.

All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees has been extremely sharp in only three series of work against the Bills and Bengals, moving his offense into scoring position on all three of his opportunities.

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. (Doug Pensinger, Getty Images)
One of the drives against the Bills wound up with a blocked field-goal attempt, but the Saints got a field goal and a touchdown out of the other two. When it was added up, Brees was 16 of 18 for 167 yards after hitting all six of his passes for 55 yards in a 27-19 win over the Bengals last Saturday.

Brees and the first-team offense seem like they're going to pick up where they left off last year as evidenced by their work against the Bengals.

Even though four key starters were sidelined with injuries -- including All-Pro left tackle Jammal Brown, center Jeff Faine, and wide receivers Marques Colston and Devery Henderson -- the first-team offense scored 17 points in its three series of work at Cincinnati.

After Brees led a crisp 10-play, 69-yard drive in which the Saints racked up six first downs and Deuce McAllister scored on a powerful eight-yard run up the middle, they scored 10 more points on a 48-yard field goal by Olindo Mare and a six-yard run by Reggie Bush before getting the rest of the night off.

Brees' performance was reminiscent of last season when he helped, with Payton's imaginative and inventive play-calling, the Saints lead the NFL in total offense at 391.5 yards a game.

"He's been practicing well and has worked hard on his game throughout camp," Payton said. "He has a good feel for what we're doing and did a good job of moving the chains."

The Saints finished with 283 yards, but a good chunk of that -- 117 yards -- came when the starters were on the field. Still, the second-team offense got into the act as well with impressive scoring drives of 62 and 84 yards that produced an additional 10 points in the second half.

"The encouraging thing about this evening is I saw some improvement," Payton added. "We need to correct some of the penalties. But I liked the offensive tempo with our first unit."

Tampa Bay

If the Bucs are going to win this season, their games are going to look a lot like this: quarterback Jeff Garcia scrambling out the pocket, turning tragedy into triumph with his ability to make plays out of nothing.

"Jeff Garcia gives us something we haven't had here and that's playmaking," coach Jon Gruden said. "He can make all kinds of plays: throwing, running, audibling. I think he's a heck of a football player."

On Saturday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Garcia was able to run away from a relentless pass rush, run for positive yards and throw pinpoint passes on the run.

Tampa Bay quarterback Jeff Garcia. (Getty)
The result was Garcia finished 6 of 6 passing for 43 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown to David Boston.

Meanwhile, the Bucs' starting defense limited the Jags to one first down in three first-half series.

But this is what is clear following the Bucs' 31-19 loss to Jacksonville Saturday night: If something happens to Garcia or the Bucs' aging defenders, it could be another very long season.

After Garcia and most of Tampa Bay's ready-for-primetime defenders left the game, the Jaguars went on a scoring binge that included three touchdowns and a field goal over the next 13 minutes, 38 seconds.

Two plays Garcia made Saturday night showed why Gruden and the Bucs tried so hard to sign the quarterback as an unrestricted free agent.

He stepped out of a certain sack and scrambled for a six-yard gain. Then a few plays later, Garcia rolled to his right, and finding his two primary receivers covered, kept buying time until just before reaching the sideline, firing a 19-yard strike to David Boston in the end zone.

"I think I've always been one to find ways to keep plays alive," Garcia said. "I don't think I ever necessarily give up on a play and I'm not just going to go down when I feel the pressure. It's just one of those things where you don't want to necessarily make a living out of it but you have to make plays like that during a game.

"There's going to come a time where I'm going to have to make two, three, four plays a game that are utilizing my feet, utilizing my escapability to get outside the pocket, to find guys, to allow them to work to get open, to create. Those are things that I've always done throughout my life and I think those are things I can bring to this team."


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