NFC South Hot Topic: Sept. 19

Need to catch up with the issues surrounding Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans in the NFC South? Look no further than "Hot Topic." Today catch up on the impact of Byron Leftwich's signing with Atlanta, Julius Peppers' slow start and player updates around the division. It's a service from Bucsblitz.com.

ATLANTA FALCONS

The Falcons signed former Jacksonville quarterback Byron Leftwich to a two-year, $6 million contract -- the same deal reached by starting quarterback Joey Harrington last spring.

Though they're equal on contractual footing, Leftwich's arrival may signal that Harrington's on somewhat shaky ground. Harrington has not been terrible in Atlanta's two season-opening losses (35 of 52, 399 yards), but he has thrown two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns and not thrown for a score.

What seems to be hurting him with coach Bobby Petrino is his holding the ball for too long and racking up reams of negative yardage amid the 13 sacks the Falcons have allowed.

Leftwich, meanwhile, won't have an immediate impact but he will be given a crash course on the offense so he can be ready to step in as quickly as possible. Leftwich, who's left ankle problems have not allowed him to play a complete season in four years, passed a physical with the Falcons this morning. He then impressed coaches enough in a workout to land the two-year deal.

Roughly 18 hours before Leftwich was added to the roster, the Falcons signed 47-year old place kicker Morten Andersen for the third time. Anderson kicked for Atlanta from 1995-2000 and he made 20 of 23 field goals for the Falcons last season.

The Falcons called on Andersen after first-timer Matt Prater missed three of four field goals, including two in Sunday's 13-7 loss to Jacksonville. This is the second straight year Andersen was summoned to bail Atlanta out of a failed kicking experiment.

Last season, the Falcons tried to have Michael Koenen handle all three kicking duties. He missed six of his first eight field goal attempts and was replaced by Andersen before the third game of the season.

PLAYER NOTES

QB Joey Harrington has been rightfully criticized for holding onto the ball for too long but not all the sacks were his fault. Offensive linemen and running backs said that the protection schemes have been relatively difficult to learn and that on-field adjustments have been problematic when opponents do a lot of stunts, twists and creative blitzes. They figure more are coming since they've yet to get things right.

FB Ovie Mughelli has been very effective the few times the team has used him on isolation, lead-blocking plays but he hasn't been used as much as expected.

RB Jerious Norwood got four more carries (nine total) than he did in the season-opening loss at Minnesota, but he was not very effective. He averaged 3.3 yards per carry -- far less than the 6.4 season average in 2006 -- and had a long run of eight yards. Coach Bobby Petrino said the running backs need to do a better job at hitting creases and breaking tackles.

TE Alge Crumpler opened the game at Jacksonville with a 35-yard reception. After that, he had two catches for 18 yards -- neither of which came in the second half. Jacksonville did an excellent job of double-teaming Crumpler in certain situations, most namely in the red zone.

WR Roddy White has emerged as Harrington's favorite target and his confidence is soaring as a result. White is actually fighting for balls in traffic and making some strong runs after the catch. His ability to run with the ball was one of the main reasons the Falcons drafted him in the first round in 2005.

WR Michael Jenkins, who is working out of the slot, has not prospered like White. Whereas Jenkins seemed to have emerged last season, his third, he has barely been a part of the passing game. He has just three catches and he failed to hang on to a Harrington pass that was returned by Minnesota's Antoine Winfield for a touchdown.

OT Wayne Gandy's left hamstring injury has still not been disclosed and his playing status for Sunday's home opener is uncertain. Coach Bobby Petrino said Renardo Foster, Gandy's replacement, competed hard in Gandy's place, but he declined to elaborate beyond that.

S Steve Gleason, a special-teams standout, left Sunday's game with the Atlanta Falcons after sustaining a bruised lung in the third quarter.

With Morten Andersen's arrival, holder/punter Michael Koenen now has to learn how to hold for a left-footed kicker. Last season, quarterback Matt Schaub held for Anderson. This is Koenen's first season working as the holder. Koenen also is expected to return to kickoff duty, a job he held the past two years before recently released kicker Matt Prater was awarded the job for two games.

DT Grady Jackson, who had a strong game against Jacksonville (3 tackles, 1 sack), said the defensive lineman made a pledge before the game that if they were confused by all the technical things the new coaching staff is trying to make them learn, scrap it and get penetration. The defensive line accounted for four sacks and 15 tackles.

CB DeAngelo Hall broke up one of the few passes thrown in his direction against Jacksonville, but he had six solo tackles, tying a 2006 season high.

Though first-round draft pick Jamaal Anderson has received much of the hype, sixth-round draft pick Trey Lewis has been the most productive rookie defensive lineman. Lewis had four tackles against Jacksonville, which tied for fifth highest on the team. The Washburn College product has backed up starter Jonathan Babineaux, who had two sacks against the Jaguars.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Julius Peppers may not have any sacks through two games, but he feels like he's still off to a good start despite Carolina's 34-21 loss to Houston.

"I feel like I've done what I'm supposed to do," said Peppers, a three-time Pro Bowl defensive end. "I'm where I'm supposed to be. A few mistakes here and there but other than that I'm doing good. No, I don't have six sacks this year, but that will come. Don't worry about that. I'm not going to worry about getting sacks and doing those type of things because that will come."

There simply weren't many opportunities for Peppers on Sunday against Houston.

The Texans were able to freeze Carolina's front four at the line of scrimmage with a series of play-action fakes and bootlegs. They spent a good portion of the day assigning a running back to "chip" on Peppers and Matt Schaub did a good job of getting rid of the football quickly.

"The bootleg was a tough play on the defenses we had called Sunday," Peppers said. "We just have to recognize it better. Players have to recognize it's a boot based off of the formation. Play the tendencies. We just didn't play that well at all."

Once the Texans got the lead, the opportunities for Peppers decreased, coach John Fox said.

"I think with the style of offense we faced last week, running play action, there are quite a few blockers there," Fox said. "It's hard to get immediate pressure. At times we had immediate pressure, but we didn't have very good coverage. As it relates to Julius, he does get attention, and we'll continue to try to find ways to free him up. But when you're playing play-action, down 20-something points, they're not going to take a lot of liberties in protection for anybody to get (to the quarterback)."

On Sunday, the Panthers were out of sync on defense, allowing the Texans to score on four straight possessions beginning late in the first quarter. Schaub completed 20 of 28 passes for 227 yards and threw a pair of touchdown passes to Andre Johnson, quickly erasing a 14-point deficit.

Peppers said the problem was the three levels of defense -- the line, the linebackers and secondary -- were never on the same page.

"We just need to get everybody playing together as one," Peppers said. "The d-line can dominate all day but if we're not playing with the backers and secondary it doesn't matter because we're going to get beat. And vice versa. If they're playing good and we're not, we're going to get beat. It's about all of us playing together better."

Although it appears Peppers is dropping more into coverage than in the past, he said that's not necessarily the case. He is, however, standing up more this year instead of lining up in a three-point stance.

"The drops are coming out of different formations, too," Peppers said. " It may look like I'm dropping more because I'm dropping from three linemen down and last year we did it from four down. We're still doing it from four, but it's looking like I'm dropping more because I'm standing up more."

PLAYER NOTES

QB Jake Delhomme hasn't been the problem for Carolina as he's thrown six touchdowns and only one interception while averaging better than 253 yards passing per game. He quarterback rating is above 111, but the offense did experience a lull in the second and third quarters of Sunday's game against Houston.

RB DeShaun Foster didn't get many carries and the Panthers could never get into a rhythm on Sunday against Houston. However, don't be surprised if he turns it around this week. Foster has owned the Falcons of late, averaging more than 100 yards rushing over his last five games against Atlanta with three rushing touchdowns.

RB DeAngelo Williams likewise did not contribute much in Carolina's 34-21 loss to Houston as the Panthers were playing catch-up most of the second half.

WR Steve Smith has another big game for Carolina with 153 yards and three touchdowns against Houston. It's a given to say that he will be a big part of the offense every week. When all was lost, Smith was the one still fighting for the Panthers, scoring on a 74-yard touchdown pass in which he broke five tackles.

WR Keary Colbert dropped three passes on Sunday and there are rumbling that the team might activate Dwayne Jarrett soon. Jarrett can't do much worse than Colbert, who in no way deserves to be starting.

WR Drew Carter dropped a would-be 45-yard reception from Jake Delhomme when he let the ball slip through his hands against Houston. It would have been a tough catch, but a good receiver makes that play. Carter is a good receiver, but still can get better.

TE Jeff King made a nice grab against Houston to aid in Carolina's first touchdown drive.

DE Stanley McClover (thigh) returned to practice last Wednesday, but then re-injured his groin and didn't practice the rest of the week. It's uncertain if he will practice this week.

LB Thomas Davis and the rest of Carolina's linebackers had a tough time covering tight ends and the fullback.

OG Jeremy Bridges will be activated on Wednesday and there's a chance he will start against the Falcons this week.

CB Dante Wesley was placed on IR with a fractured collarbone. Wesley was a valuable part of the special teams.

CB Curtis Deloatch was re-signed to the roster to replace the injured Dante Wesley.

S Deke Cooper seemed a step slow in helping out on coverage. Don't be surprised if Marquand Manuel takes over as the starter soon.

P Jason Baker is normally consistent, but had a rough day against the Texans.

K John Kasay did not attempt a field goal against Houston.

KR Nick Goings fumbled a kickoff that was recovered for a touchdown by the Texans this past Sunday. It's possible Ryne Robinson will be back returning kickoffs this week against Atlanta.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

With a 31-14 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a disastrous 0-2 start staring him in the face, no one had to tell Saints coach Sean Payton that he has a lot of things to fix.

At the same time, no one had to remind him that he has to do it in a hurry. With a game against the Tennessee Titans coming up Monday night and a bye after that, the Saints can't afford to start 0-3 -- and, to make matters worse, have two weeks to think about where their season is headed.

The only question is where does he start? The answer to that would be everywhere as the Saints have struggled in every phase of the game.

Offense is the part that probably is most easily correctable. That's because the Saints led the NFL in total yards last season and all of their key players back. So making sure they return to the level they played at a year ago and with the confidence they played with would be a good start.

But when that confidence returns is a question mark. The Saints needed 21 possessions to get their first offensive touchdown and the season and they now have two scores in 23 series.

The offensive problems are just the tip of the iceberg.

The defense has been ripped to shreds in the first two games with the Saints allowing 11 passes of 24 yards or more. Five of those long plays produced touchdowns and Olindo Mare has missed two field goals of less than 40 yards in length.

Add it all up and the Saints have lost three straight games (including their loss in the NFC Championship Game) for the first time under Payton. As a result, he wore a glazed -- yet determined -- look on his face after the loss to the Bucs.

"Hey, I'm disappointed," he said when asked if he was surprised by his team's performance. "I'm not surprised at anything. I'm disappointed and frustrated, obviously, and we've got to get it corrected."

PLAYER NOTES

QB Drew Brees struggled in the Saints' 31-14 loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs even though he was 26-of-44 for 260 yards. He threw his first TD pass of the season late in the game, but was intercepted once and finished with a passer rating of 74.1. He was also sacked twice.

RB Deuce McAllister had some success against the Bucs in rushing 10 times for 49 yards with a long gain of 15 yards, but the Saints were down 21-0 at halftime -- which reduced his chances of running the ball in the second half. He had one catch for seven yards.

WR Marques Colston led the Saints with eight receptions and 70 yards and a long of 16 in the loss to the Bucs. Colston also caught his first touchdown of the season on a 4-yard toss from Brees late in the game.

WR Devery Henderson had a tough day against the Bucs, dropping a third-down pass on the first drive and a touchdown pass in the second quarter. He also missed an assignment and was on the field for only one play in the second half.

TE Eric Johnson caught three passes for 18 yards with a long gain of eight yards against the Bucs.

FS Josh Bullocks had a team-leading seven total tackles in the loss to the Bucs.

SLB Scott Fujita was credited with six total tackles, including four solos, against the Bucs.

RDE Will Smith, who had three total tackles, also broke up a pass at the line of scrimmage.

RB Reggie Bush again struggled as he gained 27 rushing yards on 10 carries with a long of 10 yards against the Bucs. He did catch six passes for 43 yards.

WR David Patten caught two passes for 66 yards and came up with the Saints' longest play from scrimmage of the season with a 58-yard catch and run. That set up the Saints' first offensive touchdown of the season.


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