While the Falcons' wide-open passing game has been entertaining, the lack of a running game is prompting some concerns, especially when it comes time to milk the clock.
Atlanta, which has yet to rush for 100 yards in a game, is 22nd in rushing (89.8 yards per game), which is a stunning fall from its perch of being the NFL's top rushing team over the past three seasons. (A side note: The Oakland Raiders, whose running game was installed by former Falcons offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, is No. 1 in the NFL with a 194-yard average).
"We still want to run the ball better," coach Bobby Petrino said. "It's a consistency deal. Maybe it's more runs. Maybe it's more opportunities."
Maybe it's a lot of things.
First, the running backs and offensive line are transitioning to an in-line blocking scheme after utilizing a zone-blocking scheme for the past three years. The change has been more difficult for the running backs than the offensive line.
Running backs Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood are used to stretching runs right or left, then darting up field through a seam. That style resulted in few negative running plays and plenty of explosive plays, especially if teams over-pursued. Now, they are waiting for blocks to develop and, more times than not, there have been traffic jams not far from the line of scrimmage.
Also working against Atlanta is not having the threat of Michael Vick. Opposing teams frequently kept a backside defender in place to prevent bootleg runs by Vick, leaving cutback lanes for running backs. With Joey Harrington not posing that threat, every team Atlanta has played has stacked the box in run situations or blitzed the A (center-guard) and/or B (guard-tackle) gaps to create mayhem in the running game.
The Falcons' inability to burn time off the clock with the run was apparent against Houston in the Falcons' 26-16 victory last Sunday. After going up by 10 in the fourth quarter, Atlanta went three-and-out on back-to-back series after trying six runs for a net of one yard. Those drives burned less than three minutes.
PK Morten Andersen has converted six of seven field goals, including four in Atlanta's 26-16 victory over Houston, and since then there has been some lamenting as to why the team opted to let Andersen go after last season, when he made 20 of 23 field goals. President and general manager Rich McKay said that the coaching staff wanted one person to handle all kicking duties and Michael Koenen to do nothing but punt. Since Andersen didn't have the depth on his kicks for kickoffs and possibly lacked the durability to handle both kicking jobs, the team tried to go younger. Plus, some coaches had a liking for Matt Prater, who the team signed just before final cuts. The Prater experiment failed badly when he missed two field goals at Jacksonville in a six-point loss.
LS Mike Schneck was signed by the Falcons to take over for released Boone Stutz.
LS Boone Stutz was released by the Falcons, just two days after a high snap led to a missed field-goal attempt against Houston.
RB Ovie Mughelli, signed to a six-year, $18 million free agent contract, still does not have a carry.
TB Artose Pinner has been awarded Mughelli's role as the short-yardage back as the stocky No. 3 runner was used twice against the Texans, succeeding for a first down once. Pinner has three carries this season for zero yards.
TE Alge Crumpler had a career-high 65 receptions in 2005. He is on pace for 64 this season. He has eclipsed the 50-catch mark twice in his six-year career in 2005 and 2006 (56).
QB Joey Harrington has the fifth-best completion percentage in the NFL (71.2 -- 89 of 125).
WR Roddy White had 506 total yards in receptions last season. After four games (and a team-high 18 catches) he has 301. His 16.7 yards per catch ranks fourth in the league.
WR Michael Jenkins may have lost his starting job, but the move into the slot has provided him favorable matchups. Jenkins, coming off his first two-touchdown game of his four-year career, is typically paired against the other team's nickel back or a safety, which plays to his favor because of his speed and size (6-4, 217), Petrino said.
RT Todd Weiner continues to retain his respect in the NFL. A week after shutting out Carolina DE Julius Peppers -- several times in one-on-one situations -- he shut out Houston DE Mario Williams, who the Texans flip to their left side frequently in pass-rushing situations.
After opening the season having to contend with the Minnesota's defensive tackle tandem of Pat and Kevin Williams, then having to work against Marcus Stroud and John Henderson of Jacksonville, Falcons rookie LG Justin Blalock has settled in. Blalock has been far more solid in pass protection but he has also been fairly strong in the run game.
DE John Abraham is back to being one of the most dominant pass rushers in the game. He recorded his fourth sack of the season vs. Houston and caused longtime tackle Ephraim Salaam to admit that he allowed Abraham to get in his head and cause him to play one of the worst games he has ever played.
RCB Lewis Sanders could be losing his grip on his starting job. A longtime backup, Sanders has started the first four games but more teams are starting to find him. Houston threw almost all of its perimeter passes at Sanders -- and none at LCB DeAngelo Hall.
WLB Demorrio Williams remains the starter, but rookie WLB Stephen Nicholas is getting increased playing time. Nicholas has been more physical and as productive, if not more over the first four games. Williams has 18 tackles, but most of those are assists. Nicholas has 17 tackles but 10 are solo stops.
WLB Stephen Nicholas is getting increased playing time but remains the backup to Demorrio Williams. Nicholas has been more physical and as productive, if not more over the first four games. Williams has 18 tackles, but most of those are assists. Nicholas has 17 tackles but 10 are solo stops.
DT Jonathan Babineaux, who did not play vs. Houston because of a stretched MCL, could be back for the Houston game, which would be ahead of schedule.
He sure didn't last week.
However, the chances are good that he'll get another shot to do so this week against New Orleans. Although it's still early in the week and Jake Delhomme certainly hasn't been ruled out, the odds are Carr will get a chance to redeem himself this week against the Saints in what's looking like a must-win for the Panthers in terms of the overall team psyche.
"That was one of the worst games I've played in awhile," Carr said of his performance in Carolina's 20-7 loss to Tampa Bay. "I was never comfortable back there and we never really got in sync."
Carr had just 40 yards passing through three quarters, and while he finished with 155, most of those came on a meaningless touchdown drive in the final three minutes.
Carr said his first goal this week in practice is to make certain he's on the same page with Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith.
Up until the final drive, Smith was held to five yards on two receptions, leaving him frustrated. Television cameras showed Smith yelling on the sideline telephone, presumably with new offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson.
Smith finished with 32 yards receiving.
"Somehow I need to get a little brainwave going between me and some of the wideouts," Carr said. "I told Smitty, 'If you're not talking to me this week, then we have problems. I should be in your ear all week and know exactly what you're thinking next week and you should feel the same way.' It will be better next week."
Carr said Smith has been open to working together to rectify the problem and get the Panthers on the right track.
"It's more me right now," Carr said. "I just have to get a feel for what he's doing because he's the best receiver in the NFL. And we just have to get him the ball and it starts with me. And we'll do that."
While Delhomme and Smith have worked together for five years, Carr is still new to the situation, having just joined the team this past off-season.
He worked some with Smith in minicamp and training camp, but Delhomme saw most of the practice reps with the first team during the first three weeks of the season. Carr took all of the first-team reps last week, but apparently needs more work.
QB Jake Delhomme said he's anxious to throw again, but is waiting for the go ahead from team trainers. Delhomme said surgery is an option if rehab doesn't work.
QB David Carr will start again this week if Jake Delhomme's elbow isn't healed.
RB DeShaun Foster is hoping to bounce back this week after fumbling twice this past Sunday and dropping two passes. Foster has generally run pretty well, but the turnovers are becoming a concern.
RB DeAngelo Williams scored Carolina's only touchdown on Sunday on a 24-yard screen pass from David Carr. It was the longest play of the day for the Panthers. Unfortunately it came with only 23 seconds left in the game with things out of hand.
WR Steve Smith has been held to just six catches for 42 yards the past two weeks and isn't talking to the media. There's no word on why Smith is not talking.
WR Keary Colbert continues to fail as the team's No. 2 receiver. He simply isn't a dangerous receiver and can be covered one-on-one.
TE Jeff King was a non-factor against the Bucs, with one catch for 14 yards.
WR Drew Carter is having trouble coming up with the big receptions since his two touchdown catches in Week One.
LG Mike Wahle briefly left Sunday's game when his elbow locked up, but he did return. He's expected to play this week vs. the Saints.
DE Julius Peppers has yet to record a sack this season and Panthers fans are growing angry with him.
LB Dan Morgan is likely to miss this week's game with a partially torn Achilles tendon.
LB James Anderson was filling in for Dan Morgan on Sunday and looked a little lost against the Bucs.
DT Maake Kemoeatu had five tackles and batted down two balls for Carolina on Sunday.
RG Jeremy Bridges was in court Tuesday to answer misdemeanor charges of assault by pointing a gun. However, defense attorney George Laughrun asked for a continuance after one of his witnesses -- former Panthers and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Taye Biddle -- could not make the trip to Charlotte. A new trial date has been set for Nov. 27.
PK John Kasay had a quiet day on Sunday with only one extra point.
P Jason Baker had a 66-yard punt against Tampa Bay and continues to be one of the better punters in the league.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
When the Saints return to the field Sunday after their bye week, they'll have to change a lot of things that contributed to their 0-3 start.
While an underachieving offense has been under the microscope since they dropped their third straight game on Sept. 24, the defense deserves its share of the blame.
One of the problems, besides giving up 12 pass plays of 24 yards or more, has been the lack of a pass rush. Despite having two of the top pass rushers in the league in ends Will Smith and Charles Grant, the Saints are the only team to not have a sack so far.
The Saints also have created little pressure on opposing quarterbacks, which has been a factor in the big pass plays -- and has resulted in six touchdowns -- as well as producing just one interception.
"It's been disappointing, the fact that we've had a lot of opportunities to make plays and we just haven't made them," said Smith, who recorded 10.5 sacks in 2006 en route to a trip to the Pro Bowl. "Or, we got there too late to make sacks. And just the fact that we haven't won any games.
"We know we're going out there, we're playing hard, we're doing a lot of positive things and making big plays. But at the same time, we're kind of beating ourselves, and we're trying to do something to change that."
While Smith is regarded as one of the top up-and-coming ends with 26.5 sacks in his first three seasons, Charles Grant, who had 36 sacks from 2002-06, was giving a seven-year, $63 million contract last spring. But their big plays have been few and far between this season.
"That's one of the things as you look at (their last game with the Tennessee Titans), the pressure we're getting and the pressure they're getting. We have got to do a better job there," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "That's just part of many things we've got to improve on."
QB Drew Brees is off to a sluggish start with only one touchdown and seven interceptions in the Saints' first three games. Brees, who has connected on 83 of 130 passes for 677 yards, has had little time to throw -- or even set up to throw. He has also lost two fumbles, which means he has accounted for nine of his team's 10 turnovers in posting a 57.1 quarterback rating.
RB Reggie Bush has not found many holes to run through, which accounts for his having just 80 yards on 29 carries. He has two rushing touchdowns, however. He's tied for second on the team in receiving with 16 catches, but has gained just 70 yards -- giving him 150 yards from scrimmage in three games.
WR Marques Colston has been steady in the first three games and leads the team with 18 catches for 185 yards. While he's only averaging 10.3 yards a catch, he has been one of the few bright spots. He also has the team's only receiving touchdown this season, a 4-yarder in Week 2.
WR Devery Henderson, who was expected to step up and take over as the No. 2 receiver, has only four catches for 45 yards. He has been inconsistent with dropped passes and missed assignments and has seen his playing time decrease in the last two games.
TE Eric Johnson, who has not gotten a lot of help at the position because of a season-ending back injury to Mark Campbell, has been a solid option for Brees. He has caught 16 passes, tying him for second on the team, for 98 yards.
SLB Scott Fujita has been the most consistent defender and is the team leader with 24 total tackles, including 17 solo stops.
RCB Jason David has 12 total tackles and the team's only two takeaways on a fumble recovery -- which he also forced -- and an interception.
FS Josh Bullocks ranks second on the team in tackles with 20.
WR/KR Lance Moore has shown flashes with nine receptions for 100 yards and a long gain of 22 yards. He also returns punts and kickoffs and has a 30-yard punt return.
P Steve Weatherford has been solid in leading the NFC with a 48.3 gross average and net of 40.2. He has a career-long punt of 61 yards and has also dropped four of his 12 punts inside the 20.