NFC South Hot Topic: Oct. 31

Need to keep up with Tampa Bay's NFC South rivals? Here's your chance to catch up with the "Hot Topic," as Bucsblitz.com updates you on the Falcons, Panthers and Saints. It's a free service from Bucsblitz.com.

ATLANTA FALCONS

For the first five games of the season, the Falcons figured teams were blitzing them like crazy because they are playing a rookie left guard (Justin Blalock) and because they have adjusted some of their blocking principles. While some of that reasoning is true, teams also blitzed them because they knew that quarterback Joey Harrington does not perform well when pressured.

That realization came to light against New Orleans Oct. 21, when the Saints did not blitz then-starter Byron Leftwich very often. Leftwich has shown the will to remain poised in the pocket until the last moment and find voids in the defense if a blitzing player has vacated a zone.

When Leftwich hurt his ankle (he's out for at least two weeks following surgery) and Harrington returned, New Orleans dialed up the heat on Harrington and generated the desired results. Those blitzes also clogged up running lanes.

With Harrington back at the helm for the next two games, the Falcons are hoping to finally piece together some sort of running game to keep from asking him to do too much. In order to do that, they might start pressuring the tackles, where Tyson Clabo and Quinn Ojinnaka are strong cut blockers, whose style is more compatible with tailbacks Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood.

Clabo, who has started the past two games for Todd Weiner, has managed to keep within the inline-blocking scheme while cut blocking. Ojinnaka said he's the same type of player. If they're able to get their men on the ground, that could give Dunn and Norwood a better visual of what lies ahead and allow him to make the necessary cuts.

Any success in the running game would allow coach Bobby Petrino to exercise his play-action game that was effective at Louisville. Few teams have had any need to fear the play-action this season because of the woeful running attack.

PLAYER NOTES

--Though Quinn Ojinnaka will make his first start at left tackle, newly signed Terrance Pennington is getting work behind him, as is Harvey Dahl. Pennington, who played with Buffalo, was brought in last week after OT Renardo Foster tore his ACL in his left knee. Dahl is being worked as the main backup at both tackle spots but Pennington is being prepared in case the Falcons sustain another injury. Starting RT Todd Weiner (arthroscopic left knee surgery) is not expected to play this week against San Francisco.

--Although players said last week that there were some communication issues between coach Bobby Petrino and players, Petrino said that is not the case.

"I have an open-door policy, which I made very clear to all of them," Petrino said.

--With Trey Lewis now in the starting lineup, Atlanta starts four rookies, three on defense: DE Jamaal Anderson (1st round), OG Justin Blalock (2nd round), CB Chris Houston (2nd round), and Lewis (6th round).

--WR Roddy White, who has 530 yards on 33 catches, could become Atlanta's first 1,000-yard receiver since Terance Mathis in 1999.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The Carolina Panthers are losing on special teams.

On kickoff returns, the Panthers are once again dead last in average drive start.

Their average drive start on kickoffs is their own 21.9 yard line, which is last in the NFC. In fact, the next closest to the bottom is Dallas, with an average drive start of the 24.3.

Rookie Ryne Robinson was replaced by Nick Goings early in the season and when Goings went down the team turned to DeAngelo Williams. But nobody has shown any flashes in that role and the Panthers haven't come close to breaking a kickoff return.

The Panthers aren't getting it done in the kicking game either.

John Kasay is last in the entire NFL in kickoffs for touchbacks with one. To put that number in perspective, Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski leads the league with 17. At least four kickers in the league are in double digits in touchbacks.

The Panthers were last in the league in kickoff return average and punt return average a year ago. You can't help but wonder if this sustained poor play will cost special teams coach Danny Crossman his job sooner or later.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Vinny Testaverde has his right foot in a boot hoping to minimize the pain of a strained Achilles tendon. At this point it's unclear whether or not Testaverde will be available this Sunday.

--QB David Carr said he played the second half Sunday at 80 percent. However, he didn't take any big hits and said his back has improved greatly over this time a week ago. He may end up starting at Tennessee.

--RB DeShaun Foster scored his second touchdown of the season against the Colts, but was held to 62 yards on 19 carries. There's no sign that Foster will lose his starting job. But don't expect much from him this week against the Titans, who are giving up just 64.3 yards per game on the ground.

--RB DeAngelo Williams will be the team's No. 2 back against Tennessee. You can bet he'd like to have a big showing when he returns to his home state this Sunday, but the Titans are stingy against the run.

--WR Steve Smith had more receiving yards in his one start with Vinny Testaverde at quarterback than he has the entire time he has played with David Carr.

--WR Keary Colbert continues to be a below-average No. 2 receiver and dropped another pass on Sunday.

--TE Jeff King had a career-high 10 catches for 82 yards against the Colts.

--LB Dan Morgan's status for this week remains unclear.

--CB Curtis Deloatch will go on IR with a torn ACL in his knee. The Panthers have yet to name a replacement.

--DE Mike Rucker is still looking for his first sack since returning from knee surgery in January.

--SS Chris Harris is about the only Carolina player playing at a Pro Bowl level.

--PK John Kasay is doing just fine on field goals, but he's last in the NFL in touchbacks on kickoffs.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

When the Saints flew out of San Francisco late Sunday after posting a third straight victory, a 31-10 drubbing of the struggling 49ers, they enjoyed the long flight home.

They did so, however, knowing they still have a lot of work to do to overcome their 0-4 start. While all three phases of the team received praise from coach Sean Payton, it'll take more good play to extricate themselves completely.

The fact that the Saints (3-4) are only one game behind NFC South leader Carolina and trail second-place Tampa Bay by a half-game with nine games remaining meant little to Payton. He was only thinking about how his team can get better.

"It's always the case that you come back in and you feel pretty good after a win and then you put the tape on and there are a lot of things that upset you that we have to clean up," Payton said. "But I was happy with the fact that we did get out to a good start early and defensively we held them in check for the most part of the game."

The Saints defense forced a three-and-out on the first possession of the game, then the offense needed just four plays to drive 73 yards and score a touchdown.

The quick 7-0 lead grew to 10-0 later in the first quarter and reached 24-0 at halftime. They cruised in the second half and still were able to post their widest margin of victory this season.

"I think that when you're on the road and you're able to score first and get out to a lead and expand the lead as the game goes on, it's a big plus," said Payton, whose team faced double-digit deficits in their first three losses. "At some point, when you're able to force a team to become one-dimensional -- we've seen the other end of that -- it helps a lot.

"There is still a lot of work to do after looking at the tape. It's hard for you to see that, but when you watch it and you see some of the things that take place, we just have to clean up."

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Drew Brees had his finest game of the season in completing 31 of 39 passes for 336 yards and four touchdowns against the 49ers. He completed 79.5 percent of his passes, was not sacked for the fourth straight week, did not throw an interception and had a passer rating of 136.8.

--RB Reggie Bush played less than three quarters because of a bruised rib, but he was a factor in the running and passing games. He rushed for 64 yards on 10 carries with a long of 20 and caught seven passes for 49 yards with a long of 25 for a total of 113 yards from scrimmage.

--WR Marques Colston broke out with three touchdown catches among his team-high eight receptions for 85 yards. He had touchdown catches of 17, three and 15 yards, leaping high and stretching to make a spectacular catch before falling out of the end zone.

--WR David Patten had a 43-yard catch on the first play from scrimmage, which led to the Saints' first touchdown just three plays later in his first start with the Saints. He went on to catch five passes for 109 yards -- all in the first half.

--TE Eric Johnson caught two passes for 29 yards, including a long of 22 yards, in his first game against his former team. He was also a factor in the Saints' running game as a blocker.

--SLB Scott Fujita had six solo tackles and a fumble recovery in the win over the 49ers. He also broke up one pass.

--FS Josh Bullocks was credited with four tackles and one pass defense. He also forced a fumble which the Saints recovered and turned into a field goal.

--RDE Will Smith had two tackles, a half-sack and three quarterback hurries against the Niners.

--WR Devery Henderson, who has had trouble with drops this season, caught two passes for 23 yards and his long of 15 set up a Saints touchdown.

--SS Roman Harper was extremely active against the 49ers, recording six tackles to share the team lead and also breaking up two passes.


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