NFC South Inside Slant

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

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

Atlanta

Though Michael Vick's plea agreement on federal dogfighting charges and indefinite suspension from the NFL seemingly put some type of closure on this emotionally taxing saga, escaping from the cloud could be difficult.

There will be flashpoints during the season that will inject Vick's plight -- and his drag on the team -- back to the forefront. He will have a sentencing hearing on Dec. 10. Virginia Commonwealth Attorney Gerald Poindexter said he plans to present evidence for local charges when a grand jury convenes Sept. 25.

Other states where Vick acknowledged he participated in dogfights could also seek charges.

On top of that, Vick's exploits will be a continuing point of reference when it comes to the team's and quarterback Joey Harrington's production.

Already, each of Atlanta's three preseason games have been overshadowed by the news of co-defendants' plea agreements, their court appearances in which they implicated Vick, and Monday's sentencing hearing for Vick in Richmond.

"We come here every day and we're not talking about Mike's situation and what's going on and how tough this is," linebacker Keith Brooking said. "We know the expectation on the outside. There's a lot of negative stuff going on."

The Falcons played their first preseason game at the Georgia Dome Monday night. Vick's sentencing hearing that morning in Richmond will overshadow whatever transpires on the field during the nationally televised game.

Players have admitted that they pay close attention to Vick's legal developments. On practice days and game days it's something they can't escape -- except when they're on the field and in meeting rooms.

The football field and their focus on overcoming this unprecedented situation is their cocoon, wide receiver Joe Horn said. It's a cocoon they'll have to insulate themselves in until, Horn said, they're ready to blossom into a successful butterfly.

"Two months from now, I don't know, but the way we're practicing, the way we're going at it, I don't see where there should be a problem," Horn said.

Carolina

Don't be surprised if the Carolina Panthers keep just two quarterbacks on the roster this season.

The Panthers placed third-string quarterback Brett Basanez on injured reserve Sunday with a severely sprained right wrist. The injury occurred when he was sacked in the fourth quarter of Friday night's 24-7 preseason loss to the New England Patriots.

Basanez, who spent most of last season on the practice squad and is well-liked by the coaching staff, figured to have a good shot at making the team as the No. 3 quarterback behind Jake Delhomme and David Carr.

Carolina head coach John Fox. (AP)
"You never like losing a quarterback, no matter what string," coach John Fox said. "But Brett has made good progress. We kept him around last year and I thought he grew quite a bit. It's unfortunate."

It's unclear if the Panthers will consider signing a free agent or keep undrafted rookie Dalton Bell, the other quarterback still on the roster. There's a good chance Fox will keep just two and attempt to re-sign Bell to the practice squad once he clears waivers.

"I hate commenting on the unknown," Fox said. "But we are always looking to improve our team. If someone comes available that we like, that's an option. If not, Dalton Bell has shown some good work."

Basanez said he's trying to stay positive despite an injury that comes at the worst possible time for him. He would have seen extensive playing time in Carolina's preseason finale Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"I just want to be positive," Basanez said. "What is the worst that can happen -- I will get to learn from a Pro Bowler and a first-rounder this season?"

Basanez spent most of last season on the practice squad after the Panthers decided to keep just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. However, he was called up late in the season following an injury to Delhomme and saw action in one game, completing six of 11 passes for 56 yards with one interception.

The Panthers were excited about Basanez's progress this off-season and praised his work in the film room.

"It's going to be devastating in the fact that you're not out there sweating with them, you're not doing scout team (in practice) you're not trying to help the team get better on the field," said Basanez, an undrafted rookie in 2006 from Northwestern.

Right now, his plan now is to help the team in any way he can.

"I can get in the film room with Jake," Basanez said. "I don't know if I'm going to travel to away games or not, but at home games they can have an extra set of eyes.

"I can focus on helping them get better while getting better myself because I can learn from their mistakes and learn from they are looking at. So whatever way you cut it, I'm going to try to make it a good situation. I'm just going to keep getting better without practicing."

In other moves, the Panthers released guard Nate Bennett, defensive tackle Brent Curvey, defensive back Kevin Garrett, receiver Jahkeen Gilmore, tackle Eric Graham, safety Jermaine Hardy and defensive tackle Chad Lavalais. They need to make four more roster moves by 4 p.m. Tuesday to get down to 75.

New Orleans

With an exception here or there for injuries, Saints coach Sean Payton couldn't have scripted the preseason any better for his team.

If Payton had his way, of course, defensive tackle Brian Young wouldn't have missed all of training camp with a fractured right foot and All-Pro left tackle Jammal Brown would not have gone down on Aug. 7 -- a little more than a week in camp -- with a bruised bone in his right knee.

Ditto for wide receiver Devery Henderson and his strained hamstring and fellow wideout Marques Colston with a sore left knee, injuries that forced them to miss the last two exhibition games.

New Orleans head coach Sean Payton (right). (AP)
But those are the kinds of things Payton can't control. Everything else went the way he envisioned it, right down to a tough training camp that had only one of 28 practices affected by weather.

Even the team's last three exhibition games have gone his way. After a shaky preseason opener on both sides of the ball in the Hall of Fame game, Payton's first-team offense and defense have shown in the past three games that they're set for the Sept. 6 regular-season opener.

The offense has been sharp, which one would expect from a unit that led the NFL in total yards a year ago and has returned all of its key players -- each of them with another off-season in Payton's system -- under their belts.

In last week's 30-7 blowout of the Kansas City Chiefs, three Saints quarterbacks completed 29 of 34 passes for 295 yards and a touchdown in leading their team to 479 total yards.

All-Pro Drew Brees was 17-of-19 for 182 yards in just one half of work against the Chiefs, bringing his three-week total to an incredible 35 completions in 39 attempts for 355 yards.

As if the passing display wasn't enough, the Saints added 197 rushing yards on the ground. When it was over, Chiefs coach Herm Edwards had seen enough.

"They took their stick out and beat us over the head with it," Edwards said.

The defense has been dominant as well. After getting hit for some big plays and a couple of touchdowns by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Hall of Fame game, the first-team defense has not allowed a touchdown in 15 series of work and has given up just five field goals.

"We're closing in on the regular season, but we've got a lot of work to do," Payton said. "Our players know that, but overall I'm pleased."

Tampa Bay

Cato June's interception of a screen pass which he returned for a touchdown against the Dolphins last week is the kind of play the Bucs defense has been known for.

During its run of top 10 rankings that lasted a decade, Tampa Bay created turnovers, field position and points.

The Bucs finished 17th overall in total defense last season, but additions like June and defensive end Kevin Carter could restore their reputation.

Unfortunately, June's pick six was followed by the Bucs' defense yielding another nine-minute scoring drive -- their second of the preseason -- in the Bucs 31-28 win over the Dolphins.

Green, the Dolphins 37-year-old quarterback, finished an 18-play drive with a one-yard touchdown pass to tight end David Martin.

A few minutes later, the Bucs defense fell victim to a Boise State-like Statue of Liberty play, with Dolphins running back Jesse Chatman scoring on an 11-yard touchdown run.

Tama Bay head coach Jon Gruden. (AP)
"It's going to be tough to do much on offense if you don't ever get on the field," coach Jon Gruden said while recalling the nine-minute drive against New England. "That was not good. Fourth down conversions, third down conversions. I'm disappointed in that, but give Miami credit -- they've got a lot of skilled players also."

The Dolphins held a huge advantage in time of possession in the first quarter, keeping the ball 11 minutes to Tampa Bay's four.

The Bucs caused two turnovers, the second when defensive end Julian Jenkins forced a fumble that was recovered by cornerback Sammy Davis.

Following an interception thrown by quarterback Jeff Garcia, the Bucs' defense fell prey to the same play Boise State used to upset Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. "Give Cam Cameron credit, man," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "He stole that from Idaho."

It was embarrassing, yes. But give the Bucs defense some kudos, too. It's a proud unit that's starting to play well -- even if they need to play less.

"We want to get some momentum, especially in the turnover game, just setting the tempo," Brooks said. "We've got to learn how to handle success. If we make a big play, we've got to show poise and go back out and do it again. It was a growing experience. I'm glad we went through it so when we have some early success like that as a defense, we know how to handle it."


Bucs Blitz Top Stories