NFC South: Hot Topic Week 4

Need to catch up on the Bucs' NFC South rivals? Here's your chance with the "Hot Topic," filled with analysis and news about the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints. It's a service of Bucsblitz.com.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Quarterback Michael Vick might be gone, but he's not forgotten -- as much as the team would like for that to be the case.

Vick was interjected back into the forefront Tuesday when a grand jury from Surry County, Va., charged him with a count of beating or killing a dog and organizing and participating in dog-fighting. Both are felonies, punishable by up to five years per charge.

The Falcons, who are tired of Vick's woes overshadowing the franchise, had no comment about the developments, which were expected.

Vick's arraignment is scheduled for Oct. 3, a day before the Falcons and Vick's representatives hold their first meetings before an arbitrator, regarding the team's attempt to recoup nearly $22 million in bonuses it paid to Vick since he was the No. 1 overall pick in 2001.

For Vick and three co-defendants, Tuesday's development is not good news.

Their guilty pleas in a federal trial in which they admitted fighting and killing dogs on Vick's Smithfield, Va., property, were the meat of the argument presented to a grant jury.

Vick, Quanis Phillips, Tony Taylor and Purnell Peace all face up to five years in prison for pleading guilty to interstate conspiracy to fight dogs in federal court, though their cooperation with authorities is expected to reduce the potential time they're locked behind bars.

The state charges could add 10 more years of imprisonment, though, which would all but assure that Vick, 27, never plays in the NFL.

Vick was indefinitely suspended by commissioner Roger Goodell, who mentioned in his ruling suspending Vick that state charges could factor into his thought processes regarding Vick's future in the league.

Making things worse for Vick, Royal Bank of Canada is suing to collect roughly $2.3 million in a line of credit extended to Vick in January. Vick took out the loan to invest in real estate four months before police stumbled upon his dogfighting operation.

The bank cited a change in Vick's employment status as one of the reasons for him being in default of his contract. Vick also had all of his endorsement deals terminated by the companies that paid him to push their product.

PLAYER NOTES

Some players wondered why it took criticism from coach Bobby Petrino and the signing of Byron Leftwich to get Joey Harrington going, but nobody was complaining about the effort (31 of 44, 361 yards, two touchdowns) Harrington showed in Atlanta's 27-20 loss to Carolina. Now comes the real challenge for Harrington, sustaining his good play. Petrino said Harrington remains the starter but with Leftwich lurking, a long-term commitment at this point might be premature.

RB Jerious Norwood continues to see limited action in the Falcons' backfield. Norwood has six carries against Carolina and almost always appeared on the verge of breaking some big gainers. He caught three passes and was highly effective on kickoff returns, but Norwood is a player who gets stronger with more carries and with a poor running game, getting him more involved might help.

RB Warrick Dunn rarely fumbles but his series-opening turnover slowed a good start against the Panthers. Dunn carried the ball just 10 more times, averaging five yards per carry.

TE Alge Crumpler appears to be getting his legs under him, literally. Crumpler struggled bouncing back from wintertime knee surgery and fell out of shape while limiting offseason wear and tear. He has lost some weight and finally is rounding into shape. Crumpler had several double-digit yardage catches where he punished would-be tacklers after making the catch. Crumpler has not and will not practice on Thursdays, a heavy workload day, to ease the strain in his knee.

WR Roddy White had a career-long, 69-yard touchdown catch, run and flip into the end zone. He might also have started a traditional not original to the NFL, but to Atlanta -- jumping into the crowd, Lambeau Leap style.

WR Michael Jenkins had been in a funk and he didn't make things better with an early drop of a pass from Harrington. Feeding off Crumpler and White, Jenkins got his act together and finished with six receptions for a 12.7-yard average.

SS Lawyer Milloy typically plays in the box, serving as a fourth linebacker. Against Carolina, he was moved deep in the secondary to help cover Steve Smith. The shift greatly affected Milloy's effectiveness in the running game. Milloy was slower to react to runs and he got bowled over a few times, which is something that rarely happens to the hard-hitting, former Pro Bowler.

MLB Keith Brooking typically is among the top two tacklers each game but against Carolina, he tied fifth with just four total tackles, three solo. The Panthers actually targeted the five-time Pro Bowler, punishing him with lead-block runs. Atlanta's tackles were unable to consistently keep blockers off Brooking, which is a problem since Brooking is more of a natural outside linebacker.

SS Michael Boley, arguably Atlanta's best defensive player, leads the Falcons with 24 tackles, 20 of them solo stops.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Sunday's NFC South showdown between the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is taking on an added significance, given the state of the division.

Both Carolina and Tampa Bay are 2-1, so the winner will take a healthy lead in the division given the head-to-head tiebreaker involved.

Also, the winner will increase its lead to 2 1/2 games over the New Orleans Saints, who are idle this Sunday, and possibly increase their lead to three over the Atlanta Falcons if they lose this week to Houston.

But although the Panthers have dominated the series of late, winning seven of the last eight games against Jon Gruden's club, they have plenty of concern heading into this game with the status of their offensive and defensive leader in doubt.

Quarterback Jake Delhomme, who is 7-1 against the Bucs during his career, injured his elbow in Sunday's 27-20 win over the Falcons and is listed as day-to-day.

An MRI on Monday showed no structural damage and team officials are listing it as a strained elbow.

Delhomme removed himself from the game in the third quarter after feeling sharp pain in his elbow. He injured elbow on the series before, but stayed in to throw a touchdown to tie the game at 17.

He threw a few more passes, but one particular completion to Brad Hoover sent him over his own pain threshold and he took himself out. Delhomme said at that point he wasn't helping the team, he was hurting it.

"It's OK right now," Delhomme said. "It feels fine. But if I grab something or whatnot, it'll hurt a little bit trying to generate some power. And that's what happened (on Sunday) during the game. It just got to the point where the last pass, it really hurt."

It's unclear if he will play against Tampa Bay and you can almost bet coach John Fox will not say anything until Sunday and call this one a game-time decision to keep the Bucs guessing.

If Delhomme can't go, the Panthers have a solid No. 2 option in David Carr.

As for Morgan, he injured his shoulder, hamstring and heal on Sunday against the Falcons, all coming on tackles of Jerious Norwood.

None of the injuries proved too severe, but he does have tendinitis in his heal. It's unclear if that or the hamstring will keep him out.

If Morgan can't play, look for the Panthers to move rookie Jon Beason to middle linebacker. That would mean Na'il Diggs or James Anderson would start at the weak-side linebacker spot.

PLAYER NOTES

QB David Carr could make his first start for the Panthers this week against Tampa Bay if Delhomme can't go. Carr completed 3 of 4 passes against Atlanta for 56 yards and led two scoring drives - DeShaun Foster did most of the work - and also led a drive that helped kill the clock at the end of the game.

RB DeShaun Foster is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and has firmly established himself as Carolina's No. 1 running back over DeAngelo Williams. Foster scored twice against the Falcons, although he normally has huge games against them. He hasn't fared as well against Tampa Bay.

RB DeAngelo Williams had a solid game against the Falcons, rushing for 47 yards on 11 carries. He's still the No. 2 guy, but he will get more carries than most No. 2 running backs in the NFL.

WR Steve Smith had just one catch for 10 yards against Atlanta, but still impacted the football game, drawing three penalties for 67 yards on cornerback DeAngelo Hall on one game-tying drive. Expect Smith to put up big numbers this week against the Bucs. He has surpassed 100 yards receiving in each of his last four games against Tampa Bay.

WR Keary Colbert had a 38-yard catch against the Falcons and now has more catches this season (seven) than he did all of last year (five).

WR Drew Carter was not a factor against the Falcons.

TE Jeff King continues to be a big part of Carolina's game plan. He's second on the team in receptions and caught four passes for 56 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta.

DE Stanley McClover (thigh) returned to practice last week and had been listed as probable, but still did not play. The Panthers really could use McClover as they only have two sacks in three weeks.

DE Julius Peppers is receiving a lot of criticism from fans because he has yet to record a sack. Peppers had no tackles and no sacks against the Falcons and hasn't been very effective since owner Jerry Richardson called him out in training camp and told him it's time to step up and be a team leader. Coach John Fox said the lack of a pass rush this season isn't Peppers' fault.

WLB Jon Beason could move to middle linebacker this week against Tampa Bay if Dan Morgan can't play.

OG Jeremy Bridges started and played well in his first game back. His teammates like the passion and swagger that Bridges brings to the offensive line.

WLB Na'il Diggs could return to the starting lineup this week if Dan Morgan can't play and the Panthers decide to move starting weak-side linebacker Jon Beason inside.

FS Marquand Manuel started for the Panthers on Sunday against the Falcons, but the team benched him in the second half and went back to Deke Cooper.

S Deke Cooper will probably be back in the starting lineup this week against Tampa Bay. Coach John Fox said Cooper "is our starter. He didn't practice last week until Friday. That was a team decision to start Marquand Manuel, and as the game wore on we moved back, which is something we do sometimes. We just felt like we needed to make a change at that time."

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Just three weeks into the regular season, the playoffs are the last thing on the minds of the Saints.

Unfortunately, it's not because they don't want to look too far ahead. At this point, after three straight losses to open the season, the Saints are simply looking for one win.

For a team that's just eight months removed from an NFC Championship Game appearance, the Saints look more like they're headed for a high draft choice rather than the postseason berth almost everyone had them pegged for this summer.

When they made their home debut on Monday night, the Saints were looking to cure their early-season woes in front of a packed Superdome and national television audience on Monday Night Football.

But instead of taking a step in the right direction, things got worse -- much worse than anyone could have ever imagined when the season opened back on Sept. 6. Their hopes and high expectations have dissipated, however, as a result of three stunning losses.

Their 31-14 setback to the Tennessee Titans -- which included five turnovers by their struggling offense -- was punctuated by an even bigger loss: a serious knee injury to running back Deuce McAllister.

Losing McAllister was bad enough, but the Saints woke up Tuesday knowing that things look extra dim for them. Since the NFL expanded its playoff field in 1990, only three teams have started a season with three or more losses and came back to make the postseason field.

But despite the loss, and the injury to McAllister, there were a few signs of life. The Saints offense, which struggled in scoring just two touchdowns in its first 23 possessions the first two weeks, put up two scores in a span of three series late in the first half and early in the second to take a 14-10 advantage.

The Titans responded with back-to-back touchdown drives to regain the lead and then put it away with an interception return for a touchdown to put the Saints away.

"Obviously, it's a disappointing loss for us," coach Sean Payton said. "When we scored that touchdown in the third quarter, we were able to capture some momentum and give ourselves the lead. We converted some big third downs and had some balance both with the run and pass."

Despite their two scoring drives in which the Saints looked like the offense that led the NFL with 6,264 total yards a year ago, Drew Brees threw four interceptions and lost a fumble while being sacked -- offsetting the strides they finally made.

Then, there were the injuries to McAllister and All-Pro left tackle Jammal Brown, who left the game late with an injury to his right hand or wrist. McAllister is done for the year.

"Obviously it's time to be concerned," Payton said. "But panic is not the word. We're going to try dig and continue to work to get the first win. We're never going to panic, we've just got to keep fighting and keep working."

PLAYER NOTES

The Saints terminated the contract of safety Jay Bellamy prior to Monday's game and signed safety Chris Reis from their practice squad to take his spot on the 53-man roster.

Defensive tackle Hollis Thomas, who arrived for training camp overweight and out of shape and eventually lost his starting job to Kendrick Clancy, got his first start of the season against the Titans.

SLB Scott Fujita sprained his ankle during the contest with the Titans. Fujita said X-rays were negative.

CB Jason David injured his left shoulder while making a tackle late in the third quarter of Monday night's game.


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