NFC South Hot Topic: Nov. 14

Go inside the Buccaneers' NFC South rivals with the "Hot Topic," which includes news of the day and player updates for Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans. It's a free service from Bucsblitz.com.

ATLANTA FALCONS

One of the reasons the Falcons feel they might be on the verge of some good things is because they are getting healthier.

Running back Warrick Dunn said he finally has the bounce back in his legs after preseason back surgery. His backup, Jerious Norwood, could also be ready to get back on the field after missing Sunday's 20-13 victory over Carolina with a sprained ankle.

Left tackle Todd Weiner is back from knee surgery, tight end Alge Crumpler is back after missing two games (knee/ankle) and wide receiver Joe Horn is expected to return from a hamstring injury that kept him out of last week's game.

Defensively, tackle Rod Coleman is rounding into form after offseason knee and thigh operations severely limited his mobility and explosiveness. His backup, Jonathan Babineaux, is also close to full form after stretching ligaments in his right knee early in the season.

The biggest question is whether quarterback Byron Leftwich (ankle) will be able to play after missing the past two games following ankle surgery. If he comes back, the Falcons could have a quarterback controversy between Leftwich and starter Joey Harrington.

One setback that could really prove to be damaging comes with depth. Rookie tight end Martrez Milner, who was primarily used for blocking and at H-back, was placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury that coach Bobby Petrino said was initially diagnosed as a high ankle sprain.

Though Milner was the No. 3 tight end, Crumpler is still week-to-week since his knee problems continue to flare up. Backup tight end Dwayne Blakley is solid second option, but he has also been injury prone, having missed two games earlier this season with a chest injury.

PLAYER NOTES

--The Falcons have added insurance at running back if RB Jerious Norwood isn't fully recovered from an ankle injury. Rookie Jason Snelling was activated off the practice squad.

--PK Morten Anderson increased his NFL best point total to 2,504 Sunday with two field goals and two extra points in Atlanta's 20-13 victory over Carolina.

--One of the big questions that could determine whether quarterback Byron Leftwich plays this week is his ability to avoid the rush on his surgically repaired right ankle. Though he's not the most mobile quarterback, if he is unable to sidestep pressure or move up in the pocket, he could be held out of action. The Falcons' offensive line is shaky in pass protection -- as Leftwich found out when he got hurt against New Orleans -- and an injury prone stationary target could simply be too risky.

Leftwich is expected to be put through certain drills to determine his agility and readiness to resume practice.

--The decision to play OT Todd Weiner at left tackle was made because the coaching staff considered him a blindside tackle. Weiner played right tackle to protect the left-handed Michael Vick's blind side so when Weiner came back from knee surgery two weeks ago, the team experimented with him playing on the left wide and Weiner responded well.

--FS Jimmy Williams has been used as a fourth or fifth linebacker the past two weeks in running situations.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Panthers coach John Fox said the drop in production from defensive end Julius Peppers has nothing to do with an illness of any kind.

Through nine games this season, the three-time Pro Bowl defensive end has just 35 tackles, 1.5 sacks and eight quarterback pressures. To put that in perspective, last year through nine games Peppers had 55 tackles, 11 sacks and 23 quarterback pressures.

And you don't need numbers to see the difference in Peppers' play -- just watch a game.

Peppers clearly isn't the dominant player he once was on the field, and the man who used to need two or three people at a time to block him now can be contained with one.

So, the question beckons -- what's wrong with Peppers?

Fox on Monday disputed numerous message board rumors that his star defensive player is suffering from an illness.

"I think that's why they probably call them rumors," Fox said. "He does not have an illness. He just hasn't made as many sacks as he's had in the past so we'll continue to work in that area. He's doing everything in his power. He works hard. He prepares hard. We've just got to get better."

Peppers, who is regularly absent from open locker room sessions where the media is allowed to talk with players, didn't show on Monday.

"I'm not displeased with the effort," Fox said. "I'm not displeased with the attitude of the team relating to him also. We've just got to get better."

When pressed on Peppers' lack of production, Fox added, "It just hasn't happened as much this year. I've think we've struggled a little bit early on defensively. I think in the last month we've played better. We're more in the top third of the league now than bottom third (actually they're 12th in the 32-team league).

"Julius just hasn't had as many opportunities. He still makes tackles and if you look at him statistically, he hasn't had an interception and ran it 80 yards, the types of things he'd done in the past. But sometimes that's how it works. You've got to get somebody to throw it to him."

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Vinny Testaverde should be ready to play this week against Green Bay. His right Achilles held up fine on Sunday, according to head coach John Fox. Now Fox must decide between Testaverde and David Carr.

--QB David Carr has had two concussions -- not one -- this year, coach John Fox said Monday. The Panthers never reported Carr's first concussion to the media earlier in the season, suffered against New Orleans. At the time, the Panthers said Carr only had a back injury.

--QB Matt Moore, a rookie, remains the third quarterback, although he did come in to throw a Hail Mary pass at the end of Sunday's game.

--RB DeShaun Foster has only one 100-yard rushing game this season and typically doesn't run well the week after playing the Falcons. Foster injured his toe in Sunday's game and his status for this week will be reevaluated later in the week.

--RB DeAngelo Williams remains the No. 2 back and hasn't seen as much action as anticipated this season. If Foster isn't able to go this week against Green Bay, then Williams will start.

--WR Steve Smith has not had a 100-yard receiving game since Arizona as he continues to get used to multiple quarterbacks.

--WR Keary Colbert (foot) did not play against Atlanta.

--WR Drew Carter started in place of Keary Colbert and had three catches. However, Carter also dropped a potential first down pass and was later flagged for offensive pass interference, backing the Panthers back deep into their own territory.

--OT Travelle Wharton has given up 6.5 sacks this season, the most on the team this year.

--TE Jeff King wasn't much of a factor against the Falcons.

--C Justin Hartwig did start on Sunday despite a broken right thumb.

--DE Mike Rucker finally got his first sack of the season against Atlanta. Rucker has shown great toughness returning from an ACL injury in just eight months, but is not close to playing at a Pro Bowl level.

--DE Stanley McClover still hasn't registered a sack this season and has been a big disappointment thus far.

--MLB Jon Beason continues to have an outstanding season for the Panthers in the middle of the defense. Beason probably makes Dan Morgan expendable.

--CB Ken Lucas has been outstanding the past two weeks, but he and the rest of the Carolina secondary face a tough challenge this week against Brett Favre and the Packers.

--FS Deke Cooper injured his shoulder in Sunday's game and his status for this week remains up in the air.

--FS Quinton Teal replaced Deke Cooper (shoulder) in the third quarter of Sunday's game.

--P Jason Baker really struggled with short punts on Sunday. His last punt on Sunday was a line drive that was returned 23 yards to the Carolina 45 to set up Atlanta's winning touchdown with 20 seconds left. The Panthers need better consistency from Baker.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The Saints went into the second half of their schedule looking at an eight-game stretch that was decidedly softer than a first half that included games with Indianapolis, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Seattle and Tampa Bay -- teams that all have winning records at this point in the season.

When they lined up for Sunday's contest with the winless St. Louis Rams, the Saints knew they would be playing only one team that had a winning mark -- Tampa Bay -- in the final eight games.

But the Saints' impressive play during their four-game winning streak -- and their chances of moving into a first-place tie in the NFC South with the Bucs -- were all but forgotten by the time the fourth quarter unfolded in a 37-29 loss to the Rams in which the Saints trailed 34-7 early in the fourth.

Suddenly, the schedule didn't look like a big fat marshmallow any more. Then again, coach Sean Payton warned the Rams weren't as bad as their record before the game and were close to emerging a winner in several games.

It wasn't just coachspeak. The Rams instead made the Saints look like the 0-8 team in scoring 34 unanswered points en route to the long-awaited victory, while Payton's team looked like the club that lost its first four games.

While the Saints (4-5) will have a chance to get their heads back above water if they can beat Houston and Carolina (both 4-5) on the road the next two weeks, they'll be in the thick of the NFC South race going into the final five games.

But while both appear to be winnable on paper, so did the game with the Rams. And no one had to tell the Saints that they let one get away.

"It's disappointing when you hit a setback like this," Payton said. "Collectively, we have to do a better job regardless of whether we had won four games in a row. This was the game that mattered today, and we weren't good enough to win today."

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Drew Brees didn't have many opportunities to throw the ball early in Sunday's loss to the St. Louis Rams because the Rams controlled the ball for nearly 33 of the first 45 minutes. By the time Brees generated a few drives in the fourth period, the Rams had iced the game. Under heavy pressure in the first three quarters, Brees threw two interceptions and was sacked once. He finished 25-of-36 for 272 yards with two TDs and a passer rating of 86.8.

--RB Reggie Bush struggled to get going because the Saints didn't possess the ball that much. He had a 7-yard TD run on the Saints' first series, but that was the only highlight as he finished with just 17 yards on seven carries and caught five passes for 27 yards with a long gain of 13. He spent some time on the bench in the final quarter after taking shot to the head, but returned and had two two-point conversion runs.

--WR Marques Colston caught only two passes for 12 yards in the first three quarters, but finished the game with eight receptions for 129 yards. His long gain was for 36 yards.

--WR David Patten started in a three-wide set and caught three passes for 37 yards with a long of 24.

--TE Eric Johnson caught three passes for 38 yards and had a 7-yard TD reception from Drew Brees in the final minute of the contest.

--WLB Brian Simmons tied for the team lead with eight tackles and recorded one of four sacks against Marc Bulger.

--RDE Will Smith finished with seven tackles and a sack and was solid against the run as the Saints held Steven Jackson to a 3.5 average on 22 carries.

--FS Josh Bullocks recorded seven tackles and also had one of the Saints' four sacks.

--SLB Scott Fujita continues to play at a high level week in and week out and finished with eight tackles, tying for the team lead.

--RB Pierre Thomas, an undrafted free agent, returned eight kickoffs for a 29.1-yard average with a career-long 64-yarder in the first quarter.


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