NFC South Hot Topic: Week 6 postgame

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ATLANTA FALCONS

Quarterback Joey Harrington's past could be haunting him more than his present level of play in terms of job security.

His inability to maintain reliable productivity in five previous seasons could be why, despite starting the first six games of the season, he was hardly on stable footing for next Sunday's game at New Orleans.

"Your job is never safe and that's the reality of it," Harrington said. "Some people have a longer leash. Some people have more leeway. I was in Lambeau Field when they booed Brett Favre three years ago when their offense was struggling. When I heard that, that validated to me that this is a crazy league.

"They're always looking for the stronger, faster, younger, better player. As soon as you learn that's how it is, the less you will need to be validated to help your performance."

Harrington was named Atlanta's starter vs. New York despite being pulled in the fourth quarter of in the loss at Tennessee and replaced by Byron Leftwich. Leftwich was promoted to No. 2 but he missed part of one practice and all of another practice with a mildly sprained right ankle in the week leading up to the Giants game.

The benefit of playing on Monday and gaining another practice didn't make Leftwich's minor injury prove to be much of a setback, but for a player who had taken very few snaps with the first-team offense since being signed just more than three weeks ago, any missed work is crucial.

Given that, the coaching staff feels Leftwich is close to being able to carry the team if Harrington is ineffective or the team loses.

Atlanta's offensive woes are hardly Harrington's fault, but giving the offense a boost is far more easily done by swapping quarterbacks than by inserting a new offensive lineman, running back or wide receiver. That is exactly the message that Harrington said coach Bobby Petrino conveyed to Harrington last Monday, when he explained to him why he relieved him with Leftwich in the 20-13 loss to the Titans.

"I don't agree with it but I understand. I very much understand," Harrington said.

Harrington's past, which spans four seasons with Detroit and one in Miami, has played into the team's psyche, for better or for worse.

"It's not Joey," tailback Warrick Dunn said. "I've said that over and over. We have to be better. The offensive line has to be better. The backs have to block and run better. The wide receivers have to run better routes. We all have to be better.

"Is (Harrington) going to play great every game? No. But to me, he's played well above what anyone thought he would because of his history."

PLAYER NOTES

--LT Renardo Foster (6-7, 327), who will replace starter Wayne Gandy (torn ACL, left knee) is playing ahead of second-year tackle Quinn Ojinnaka because of his familiarity with the system (Foster played at Louisville under Bobby Petrino) and his size. Ojinnaka was being groomed to some day take over for Gandy by the previous coaching staff, which utilized a zone blocking scheme, at which Ojinnaka excelled. However, Ojinnaka (6-5, 312) has been bypassed because of his stature and his limited gains in the system. Ojinnaka has been elevated to the swing tackle after being inactive for Atlanta's first five games.

--FS Jimmy Williams lost his spot as the nickel free safety to Antoine Harris, but, according to defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, it's not because Williams is having a hard time transitioning from cornerback. Harris can play both safety spots and some corner if needed and his versatility allows the Falcons some flexibility in game-day, active roster management.

--OT Wayne Gandy, who suffered a season-ending ACL injury in last week's loss at Tennessee, is expected to have surgery this week. He is the third Falcons player to have ACL surgery this year. WR Brian Finneran and QB D.J. Shockley are the others.

--DE Josh Mallard, a pass-rush specialist who also was used at DT, was waived to clear a roster spot for OLB Travis Williams. The Falcons elevated Williams to add depth at OLD because rookie Stephen Nicholas is out the next few weeks with a high ankle sprain.

--Rookie WR Laurent Robinson, who led Atlanta with four receptions last week vs. Tennessee, has been taking a heavy load of snaps with the first team offense this week and could be incorporated more into the rotation, despite being listed as the No. 4 WR.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The Carolina Panthers began the season with what they felt like was a pretty strong trio of quarterbacks -- Jake Delhomme, David Carr and the young, but talented Brett Basanez.

On Sunday, two of them were on injured reserve and the other one couldn't play due to a stiff back.

And yet, the Panthers still won, improving to 4-2 entering the bye week with a 25-10 win over Arizona.

They did it behind the play of 43-year old Vinny Testaverde, who became the oldest starting quarterback in NFL history to win a game. Testaverde turned in an incredibly efficient effort, completing 20 of 33 passes for 206 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown strike to Steve Smith to put the Panthers ahead for good with 5:40 left in the fourth quarter.

And you can bet there will be some fans wondering if he's not the better option for the Panthers when they play host to the Indianapolis Colts after the bye week. Carr hasn't looked particularly impressive, although he did battle through a back injury and throw a touchdown pass to Smith in a win over New Orleans.

The Panthers actually beat the Cardinals twice this past week -- first in signing Testaverde and then on the field. Like the Panthers, the Cardinals were hurting for a healthy quarterback and wanted Testaverde. But he chose Carolina because it was closer to his home in New York City.

"I just couldn't do it, it was too far," Testaverde said of playing on the West Coast.

Aside from the issues at quarterback, coach John Fox has to be feeling better about his defense, which has made huge strides in the last two weeks.

Carolina's defense forced five turnovers and sacked the quarterback twice, equaling their season total. Safety Deke Cooper had two interceptions and Ken Lucas added another.

But it was defensive end Julius Peppers who set the tone early with his first two sacks of the season, including one that knocked out Kurt Warner and forced the Cardinals to go the rest of the way with Tim Rattay at the helm.

Unlike Testaverde, Rattay looked lost after signing earlier this week.

"We did a good job of setting the tone early," Peppers said. "That is what we talked about, is starting fast. I think that was a big part of the game how we started, setting the tone against the run and almost shutting them down."

Cooper said it's no coincidence that the defense has stepped up since a team meeting two weeks ago to clear the air.

"I think everyone had to look in the mirror," Cooper said. "We haven't been playing well those first four games. But there (are) a lot of new faces and it takes time to jell. It takes time for that stuff to happen and I think that's starting to get that. But we have a big feat ahead of us in two weeks."

PLAYER NOTES

--RB DeAngelo Williams ran for a career-high 121 yards on Sunday on the strength of a 75-yard run. He also put the Cards away with a 13-yard touchdown run in the fourth.

--DE Julius Peppers had quite a game for the Panthers with seven tackles, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. He also knocked out Kurt Warner.

--QB David Carr (back) did not play Sunday.

--MLB Jon Beason started in the middle for Carolina on Sunday and played well again.

--WR Steve Smith seemed more in sync with Vinny Testaverde than he did with David Carr, catching 10 passes for 136 yards and a score. Smith also returned one punt.

--FS Deke Cooper had two interceptions on Sunday and is playing much better of late.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Finally, the Saints can breathe a little bit easier -- even if it's for just one week.

After four straight losses to open the season, the Saints had to go to great lengths Sunday night to win for the first time in 2007.

They couldn't win in Indianapolis, Tampa or New Orleans, so they packed up and traveled more than 2,700 miles (one-way) in their longest road trip of the season to claim a 28-17 win over the Seattle Seahawks.

It was a victory the Saints (1-4) desperately needed to salvage their season -- for the time being -- and it was particularly important when all was said and done considering three of their next four games are at home.

In doing so, they looked more like the Saints that won the NFC South title a year ago and played in the NFC Championship Game rather than the shaky, mistake-prone outfit that dropped its first four games this season.

While they certainly weren't perfect, the Saints played well enough on both sides of the ball and on special teams to come away with the long-awaited and much-anticipated first victory.

"I was proud of the way we fought tonight," Saints coach Sean Payton said after his team snapped a five-game losing streak. "You know, it's a good team we played on the road in a tough environment. We came here with good focus and good preparation leading up to the game.

"This is an important win for us right now," Payton said. "We certainly needed one."

Thanks to some shaky special teams play by the Seahawks, the Saints got on the scoreboard first for the first time this season. Pierre Thomas picked up a fumble and scored after a bad snap to punter Ryan Plackemeier squirted through his legs less than 2 1/2 minutes into the game.

"Finally, it was good just to have some positive things go right for us," said Saints wide receiver David Patten, who played a big role in the victory with eight catches for 113 yards. "The first turnover, that first big play we had on special teams. That really sent a shock wave through our team. That's what we needed."

Jazzed by that quick score, the Saints' offense began to look like the unit that led the NFL in total yards last season. After a punt, they scored on three straight possessions -- traveling 86, 66 and 80 yards -- to stun the Seahawks and their unhappy fans.

"Hey, that's us," quarterback Drew Brees said of the Saints' offense, which had scored five touchdowns on their first 43 possessions going into the game. "You know -- rhythm, tempo, converting on third downs. I felt like we did a great job with that today."

After Thomas' score, the Saints got touchdowns from wide receiver Lance Moore on a seven-yard reverse and on passes from Brees to tight end Eric Johnson (three yards) and wideout Marques Colston (two yards) for a 28-10 halftime lead.

The defense also pitched in with five sacks after it had just one in the first four games and they stopped the Seahawks on downs twice in the fourth quarter. Free safety Josh Bullocks, who had an interception in the fourth period, also blocked a 44-yard field goal try in the second period.

"I thought our defense hung in there exceptionally well and our special teams came up with a big play we talked about," Payton said.

PLAYER NOTES

--WR Lance Moore got his first NFL start in Sunday night's game against the Seattle Seahawks. Moore, a second-year pro and a former Saints practice squad member, was playing in only his ninth NFL game.

--WR Devery Henderson, who won a starting job in training camp, was replaced by Moore in the lineup after having a league-high seven drops in the first four games.

--CB Usama Young, who played in the nickel package, strained his shoulder while breaking up a pass in the second quarter and did not return.

--RDE Will Smith experienced some cramping late in the third quarter and had to be taken to the locker room for intravenous fluids. He returned, however, early in the final period and finished the game.

--SLB Scott Fujita returned to the starting lineup after being sidelined for last week's game with the Carolina Panthers because of a sprained right ankle.

--DT Kendrick Clancy played against the Seahawks after missing the last two games with a right turf toe injury.

--K Olindo Mare, who has a strained groin, was able to handle extra-point tries against the Seahawks. He looked fine on field-goal attempt in pregame warm-ups, but did not try one in the game.

--P Steve Weatherford once again kicked off because of Olindo Mare's strained groin.

--RCB Jason David missed his second straight game because of a fractured left forearm that will likely keep him out another 2-to-4 weeks.

--WR Terrance Copper was a healthy inactive for the first time this season.

--DE Josh Cooper was a healthy inactive for the first time this season.


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