Inside Slant: NFC South Week 3

Want the inside scoop on what's going on with Tampa Bay's divisional rivals? Look no further than the weekly "Inside Slant," your source for news on Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans entering this weekend's games. It's a service of Bucsblitz.com.

ATLANTA FALCONS

There's no sentiment that a quarterback controversy is brewing, but Byron Leftwich's acquisition Tuesday suggests that a quarterback change could be on the horizon.

The Falcons signed Leftwich to a two-year, $6 million contract Tuesday, a deal that pays him exactly what they're paying Joey Harrington to be the starter. Harrington signed a two-year, $6 million free-agent contract last spring.

For now, Leftwich, who went through his first practice Wednesday, is third on the depth chart behind Harrington and Chris Redman. He'll remain in that role until he learns enough of the offense to put himself in position to be promoted.

If Harrington struggles or gets hurt -- and the 0-2 Falcons continue to lose -- Leftwich likely would leapfrog Redman into the starter's role. The Falcons could have easily signed anyone to be their third quarterback.

Leftwich was brought in for a reason.

To bring Leftwich up to speed as quickly as possible, coach Bobby Petrino said the quarterback would be coached the game plan on a weekly basis.

"I didn't feel like we'd give him the entire playbook and say 'here, study this,' " Petrino said. "You've just got to kind of piece it together and see how much he can pick up this week. I'll have some understanding at the end of the week how quick did he learn, what does he know, what does he think he knows."

Harrington, meanwhile, said he does not view Leftwich as a threat, although he admitted that earlier in his career, such a move could have been unsettling.

"Byron is the type of player who can help this team," Harrington said. "That's what the National Football League is about, getting wins and bringing in players that can help this team win. It's not something that distracts me from what I'm supposed to do. We have to win games."

Harrington has not been awful (35-52, 399 yards, two interceptions, zero touchdowns) but he has been unable to generate the type of success Petrino is seeking offensively. Petrino said Monday that Harrington has been playing conservatively and that his reluctance to throw the ball at times has factored in to the 13 sacks allowed.

Harrington disagreed with Petrino's analysis.

"No, I don't," concur, Harrington said. "That's okay. I feel like I've made the throws when they're there. That's a part of being a human is disagreeing but that's not the sticking point. I'll try and get better. That's my response.

"I'm here to do what he wants me to do for this team and that's what I've said from Day 1. My job here is to help this team get better and do what I can do to help this team. If that's what he would like me to do then I will try and do that."

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Morten Andersen's acquisition, which came after first-time kicker Matt Prater missed three of four field goals, including two in Sunday's 13-7 loss at Jacksonville, has triggered a chain of change in the kicking game.

Michael Koenen, who had been solely punting, will also handle kickoff duties. Koenen served as Atlanta's kicker and punter the past two seasons. Koenen also is the holder on field-goal attempts and has already been putting in extra time learning how to hold for the left-footed Andersen as opposed to the right-footed Prater.

Since Andersen's maximum range has been projected at 47 yards, Koenen will be used for long-range attempts. If that happens, backup quarterback Chris Redman will be the holder.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

FS Chris Crocker returned to practice after being out since suffering a bone bruise in his right knee in the third preseason game vs. Cincinnati. Crocker split time with Jimmy Williams with the starters. There is a chance that Crocker could start against Carolina.

Rookie left OT Renardo Foster worked with the first-team offense because veteran Wayne Gandy (hamstring) did not practice. Foster played the final three quarters against Jacksonville after Gandy got hurt and did a solid job.

Rookie DT Trey Lewis continues to emerge as one of the late-round sleepers of the draft. Lewis had four solo tackles against Jacksonville as a backup to starter Jonathan Babineaux.

RCB Lewis Sanders was replaced by rookie Chris Houston late in Sunday's loss to Jacksonville after the Jaguars successfully targeted Sanders in the second half.

WR Laurent Robinson is healing from a hamstring injury and, if healthy, he could become a major part of the passing game. Veteran Michael Jenkins has not been very involved since he's been moved from wideout into the slot. Robinson, meanwhile, can play both inside and out and he's shown to be fearless in going after the ball.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The Carolina Panthers seem in danger of landing in the same situation they were in during the NFC Championship Game -- becoming a one-man show in the passing game.

While Pro Bowler Steve Smith has been spectacular this season, the Panthers still don't have a No. 2 receiver heading into Sunday's NFC South matchup at the Georgia Dome against the Atlanta Falcons.

The Panthers put a patch on the problem last year with the addition of Keyshawn Johnson, but they tired of him after just one season and released him, to the surprise of many fans, after drafting Dwayne Jarrett in the second round from USC. They figured he'd be the guy to step in opposite Smith, but he's been slow to pick up the NFL game and has been inactive for the first two games and still isn't close to playing.

Keary Colbert, who caught just five balls last season and finished the last month of the 2006 season on the inactive list, resurfaced as the starter this year, but he's again been ineffective with only four receptions for 34 yards.

He had three drops against Houston.

Drew Carter had two touchdown receptions against St. Louis in the season opener and while he's a nice No. 3 option, he hasn't shown the consistency needed to be a starter.

In 2005, the Panthers managed to make it to the NFC title game despite Smith being the only real weapon in the passing game. But when DeShaun Foster broke his ankle in the NFC divisional playoffs, the Panthers had no running game and were blown out by Seattle.

Quarterback Jake Delhomme doesn't think it will come to that again.

"No, I'm not worried about it," Delhomme said. "I think (the Houston game) just kind of got out of hand pretty quick. I think it was a one-game deal. I truly believe we can run the ball effectively and we'll try to get back to doing that this week.

"I really feel like we're a rhythm team; when we can run and pass it and just kind of flowing like that. We did that early on in the game; we got 14 points right away. We'd run, we'd throw, we'd run, we'd throw. And maybe we didn't establish it in the second quarter. We just didn't get it done."

The Panthers need to do a better job of establishing the run.

They ran for 186 yards in the season opener against St. Louis, but managed just 66 against Houston.

Foster has run extremely well against the Falcons of late and Atlanta is surrendering 126 yards per game on the ground, although they've not allowed a rushing touchdown.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Look for right guard Jeremy Bridges to start Sunday against Atlanta.

Bridges was activated Wednesday following a two-game team-imposed suspension. To make room on the roster, the Panthers placed safety Nate Salley (knee) on injured reserve.

In the locker room after practice, Bridges said he worked almost exclusively with the first-team offense on Wednesday.

"I ran with the ones all day today, so I think it's going to be for sure that I'm starting on Sunday," Bridges said.

He'll replace rookie Ryan Kalil, who gave up two sacks in last week's 34-21 loss to the Houston Texans.

Bridges has not been allowed to be at the team's facilities during the suspension, but said he's been working out hard and keeping in contact with his teammates.

Bridges started 14 games last season at right tackle and the Panthers gave him a three-year contract extension late last season. However, he was busted for a misdemeanor assault charge on the eve of training camp and the team suspended him for two games.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

WR Dwayne Jarrett has been inactive the past two weeks.

WR Keary Colbert could lose his starting job this week after dropping three balls against Houston. The home crowd booed Colbert after his final drop. He had only five catches all of last season. Colbert has just four catches for 34 yards.

RG Jeremy Bridges has returned from his suspension this week and could step right in and start.

SS Chris Harris and FS Deke Cooper will have their hands full with Falcons TE Alge Crumpler this week. The Falcons love to throw to Crumpler and the Panthers struggled covering tight ends last week.

FS Deke Cooper (groin) was held out of work on Wednesday, possibly opening the door for Marquand Manuel to start.

FS Marquand Manuel has a chance to replace Cooper in the starting lineup now that he's had two weeks to get familiar with the team's defensive scheme.

TE Jeff King is second on the team with nine receptions for 74 yards.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Despite their success a year ago, when they had only one two-game losing streak and swept to the NFC South title en route to a trip to the NFC title game, Saints coach Sean Payton knew his team was going to face some adversity this season.

He told his team, which was the pick of many to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLII this season, in training camp that it would happen at some point in a 16-week season.

What Payton didn't know was that it would happen this soon. After only two weeks, the Saints are 0-2 heading into Monday night's nationally televised home opener with the Tennessee Titans.

At this point last season, the Saints were 2-0 and flying into their return to the Superdome against the Atlanta Falcons. That game was also played on a Monday night and amid much emotion and fanfare, the Saints crushed the Falcons, 23-3, en route to a 10-win season.

Payton knows his team is far from being the one that used two road wins and that magical evening as a springboard to the finest season in club history. Just 12 months later, they're at the opposite end of the spectrum.

What's worse than two straight losses to open the season is knowing that his team hasn't been competitive since playing the Indianapolis Colts to a 10-10 tie in the first half of the first game.

After being outscored 31-0 by the Colts in the second half, they laid an egg in falling behind the Tampa Bay Bucs, 21-0, at halftime of an eventual 31-14 setback last week.

"We've got a little gut check here right off the bat at the start of the season," Payton said as he put the Bucs' game behind him and started looking forward to the matchup with the Titans (1-1)."

That's all Payton has right now. With an offense that has sputtered and scored just two touchdowns in 23 possessions over the two games, a defense that's given up big pass plays at an alarming rate and special teams that have not been the most efficient, he can only hope the adversity he knew would come has passed.

While he knows that doesn't necessarily mean it will equate to immediate wins, he at least hopes to start seeing a different team against the Titans.

"We've got to get this thing headed in the right direction soon and I understand that," Payton said. "So there needs to be a sense of urgency. That's healthy. It starts with us. It starts with me, the head coach, and our staff, right through to player number 53. We can talk about it all we want, but this is a show-me game."

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Because of a turf toe injury to defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy, the Saints may have to count out on their best run stopper from a year ago when they go against the Tennessee Titans on Monday night.

Hollis Thomas lost his starting job to Clancy in training camp after Thomas reported to camp overweight and out of shape. Thomas was estimated to be at least 25 pounds over his reporting weight of 330 pounds and gave way to Clancy, who was signed in June, when the weight failed to come off.

Thomas has been part of the line rotation for the first two games, but his role could expand with Clancy ailing and the NFL's top running attack coming to the Superdome as the Titans are averaging a healthy 211.5 yards a game.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

RB Deuce McAllister was held out of practice Wednesday with some swelling in his right knee. Coach Sean Payton said he held him out because they have an extra day of practice this week to prepare for Monday's game.

S Jay Bellamy did not practice Wednesday after spraining his left ankle in Sunday's game with the Bucs. His status for Monday's game won't be known until later in the week.

C/G Jonathan Goodwin has a mild back sprain, which kept him out of Wednesday's practice. Payton said earlier this week that Goodwin should be ready for Monday night.

WR Titus Ryan has been signed to the Saints practice squad. He takes the place of quarterback Tyler Palko, who was added to the active roster last week.


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