NFC South Hot Topic: Nov. 21

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

Joey Harrington is back as the Falcons' starting quarterback for Thursday night's game against visiting Indianapolis, but it is unclear if his re-insertion is based on merit or is by default.

In announcing Harrington would start Tuesday, coach Bobby Petrino cited a tailbone injury to Byron Leftwich as the rationale. The starter would be based on whom the staff felt would give the team the best chance of winning, Petrino said after playing both quarterbacks in Sunday's 31-7 loss to Tampa Bay.

However, Leftwich's injury made it an easy choice.

"Joey will start the game," Petrino said. "Byron has to see if he can get ready to be the backup. (Leftwich) came in after the game -- it's a tailbone -- and called (trainer) Ron (Medlin) that night. They took him in (Monday) morning and got X-rays. There was not a fracture."

That Leftwich didn't practice Tuesday took him out of the running to start. If he's able to practice Wednesday, he could be Harrington's backup. If Leftwich can't go through drills, he would serve as the emergency quarterback, with Chris Redman working as the No. 2.

This is the sixth quarterback switch with Harrington and Leftwich and the fourth time Petrino has changed starters. Leftwich started at New Orleans and last Sunday's game with Tampa Bay and Leftwich replaced Harrington in the fourth quarter of a 20-13 loss at Tennessee.

Harrington started eight of 10 games and was called on to relieve Leftwich in the third quarter of the most recent loss at Tampa Bay.

Leftwich was unavailable for comment Tuesday. Harrington simply took the high road.

"I'm going to go play ball and do what this team is asking me to do," Harrington said. "Like I said last week if they want me to be the starter I'll be the starter. If they want me to be the backup I'll be the backup. It doesn't change how I go about getting ready for this game. My thought is to go play ball and run this offense."

Petrino was non-committal about whether Leftwich would regain his starting job at St. Louis Dec. 2 if he were healthy. Instead, Petrino said he would focus on the game with the Colts and make a decision afterwards.

PLAYER NOTES

--The Falcons were decimated by injuries to key players during Sunday's game with the Bucs.

Starting defensive tackles Rod Coleman and Trey Lewis were placed on injured reserve Tuesday, ending their seasons. Coleman sustained a right triceps and right hand injury while Lewis will need surgery on his right knee.

The loss of the duo softens the Falcons' interior defense and forces some emergency depth. Montavious Stanley and Jonathan Babineaux will start and Tim Anderson will back up both tackle spots.

For Coleman, a Pro Bowler two years ago, this season has been more than rocky. He had to have right quadriceps and right knee surgery and was only able to play five games.

In other injury news, left offensive tackle Todd Weiner is out for at least one game after aggravating his surgically repaired left knee. Quinn Ojinnaka will start in his place.

Backup tight end Dwayne Blakley is doubtful with a concussion. Recently signed Courtney Anderson will serve as the No. 2 tight end.

--Atlanta signed NT Jesse Mahelona after placing Rod Coleman and Trey Lewis on injured reserve. Mahelona was a 2006, fifth-round draft pick of the Tennessee Titans and played in 10 games with one start. He was cut this training camp and had a brief stint with Miami before being released in October.

--WR Joe Horn (hamstring) did not practice Tuesday but he could be ready to play Thursday. If not, he would miss his third straight game.

--DE Kevin Huntley was signed off the practice squad Tuesday. He was signed to the practice squad in September but cut in early October. The former Raiders practice squad player was re-signed Oct. 29. He will be the fourth DE but he could play because third DE Chauncey Davis might have to play some at DT.

--RB Warrick Dunn needs 26 yards to reach the 10,000-yard milestone, but he also is the only active running back with at least 9,500 rushing yards and 3,800 receiving yards.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Panthers coach John Fox almost never points a finger at a player, but he did on Monday.

Fox called out holder Jason Baker and tight end Jeff King at a press conference at Bank of America Stadium citing their mental errors on a botched pooch punt resulting in a 94-yard touchdown return by Green Bay's Tramon Williams. That gave the Packers a 7-0 lead and they went on to win the game 31-17 at Lambeau Field, handing the fading Panthers (4-6) their fourth straight loss.

Turns out the Panthers only had 10 players on the field for the punt.

Fox said it's Baker's responsibility to make sure there are 11 men on the field. He also fingered King as the missing 11th man.

"If we had one more guy over there, we think it's a huge difference," Fox said. "Any time they've got 11 and you've got 10, it's not a good deal. If that were a field goal attempt, we would call time out. On a pooch punt or any kind of a plus-50 punt situation, our holder is trained to count 11. If there are not 11, you wait for him to get on. If he doesn't show up, you just get delay of game."

The irony of Fox's decision to pooch punt is that he was trying to play it safe. He preferred to pin the Packers at their own 5 and trust his defense to get the ball back in good field position rather than risk missing a 52-yard field goal in a swirling wind and give the Packers the ball at their own 42.

It's sound strategic thinking, even if you don't like the call.

But Baker failed to pick up on the missing man. When asked if Baker miscounted or simply failed to count, Fox replied, "I'd say he probably didn't count. He's a pretty smart guy and knows how to count to 11.

"It's not all just linemen (failing to cover the kick). There are other guys. The tight end, which we were missing, is key. Then our holder is a good athlete."

Teams have sent returners back on the Panthers before when they've tried pooch punts in the past.

It's just this time the Packers made the most of a power play situation.

When asked why he didn't just simply send Baker on to the field to punt, Fox responded it was the "element of surprise."

Of course, when you've already run the play this season that tends to fly in the face of the "element of surprise" explanation.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Vinny Testaverde is likely to be the starter this week against New Orleans. He faces a Saints defense that is terrible against the pass. He should get Steve Smith back this week as his top weapon.

--QB David Carr is likely to remain the backup this week against New Orleans as the Panthers try to snap a four-game slide.

--RB DeShaun Foster ran strong against the Packers this past Sunday and finished with 87 yards on 20 carries. It has been a while since Foster posted a 100-yard game, but he has run well at times, particularly the last two games.

--FB Brad Hoover blocked well against Green Bay. He left that game briefly with what may have been a shoulder stinger, but did return.

--WR Steve Smith probably will return this week against the Saints. This is the best chance in quite awhile for Smith to have a big game since the Saints are so bad against the pass.

--WR Drew Carter had five catches for 132 yards and a touchdown against Green Bay filling in for Steve Smith. It will be interesting to see if Carter steps up and replaces Keary Colbert this week. Probably not, since the coaching staff has an unexplained devotion to Colbert.

--KR Ryne Robinson has stepped up his game the last two weeks and looks more confident returning kickoffs.

--TE Jeff King was the intended receiver of Vinny Testaverde touchdown pass on Sunday, but the pass was well defended. King is reliable, but not a great weapon in the passing game. That is to say he's not all that fast. He's basically Kris Mangum Jr.

--C Justin Hartwig has played through a broken thumb on his right snapping hand the last two weeks. That shows some toughness.

--DE Julius Peppers had failed to register a sack in eight of the previous nine games before getting one Sunday against Brett Favre. Peppers also blocked a kick and forced a fumble that Favre recovered.

--LB Jon Beason continues to play solid football in the middle of the Carolina defense, but he did have a rough time against Brett Favre and the Packers.

--FS Deke Cooper appeared out of place on two of Brett Favre's touchdown passes Sunday.

--CB Chris Gamble may have broken the thumb on his hand. It's hard to imagine that would keep Gamble out of Sunday's game even if it broken.

--K John Kasay hit on his only field goal attempt Sunday, but his pooch punt off a fake field goal went the other way for a touchdown. You have to wonder if the Panthers are losing faith in Kasay kicking from beyond 50.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Even though it's only half the size of their four-game skid to start the season, the Saints' current two-game losing streak could turn out to be much more damaging in the long run.

The reason? After getting their act together with four straight wins, the Saints have taken two steps back with losses to the St. Louis Rams and Houston Texans. As a result, the Saints (4-6) are beginning to play themselves out of the NFC wild card playoff picture.

The safety net teams like to have beneath them in case they don't win their division and automatically advance to the playoffs likely won't be there for the Saints with another loss or two. And no one has to tell them.

The goal of the Saints, of course, is to win the NFC South for the second straight season. They're two games behind the Tampa Bay Bucs with six to play, which gives them more than enough time to do something about it considering they get the Bucs on Dec. 2 in the Superdome.

But if that fails, the NFC wild card race is where things get sticky for the Saints. After the division leaders -- Dallas (9-1), Green Bay (9-1), Tampa Bay (6-4) and Seattle (6-4) -- five other teams have better records than the Saints going into this weekend's play.

Currently ahead of the Saints in the wild-card race are the New York Giants (7-3), Detroit (6-4), Washington (5-5), Philadelphia (5-5) and Arizona (5-5), with the last three teams just one game ahead of the Saints.

The problem is the Saints are one of four teams -- along with Chicago, Minnesota and Carolina -- at 4-6. That means a total of seven teams are within one game of each other and, because of tiebreakers, the Saints are no better than eighth among nine teams lined up for just two wild-card spots.

The hole they've dug will get deeper if they can't turn things around quickly, starting Sunday at Carolina. The positive is they've still got something to play for.

"We still have some games in front of us," said cornerback Jason Craft. "The good news is we're still in this."

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Drew Brees completed 33 of 49 passes for 290 yards and one touchdown against the Houston Texans, but he didn't get a lot of help from his receivers. There were at least eight drops with two being deflected into the hands of Texans' defenders for interceptions. Brees, who was sacked once, had a passer rating of 72.7.

--RB Reggie Bush was held in check in the running game as he gained just 34 yards and had a 2.3 average on 15 carries with a long of 11 yards. He was much more effective in the passing game, catching a career-high 12 balls for 70 yards.

--WR Marques Colston recorded his third straight 100-yard game as he caught nine passes for 118 yards and averaged 13.1 yards per catch despite injuring his left knee just before halftime. He had a long gain of 32 yards.

--WR David Patten did not start, but was the only other wideout besides Colston to catch more than one pass. He had two receptions for 29 yards with a long of 21.

--TE Eric Johnson played what he said was his worst game as a pro. He caught two passes for 17 yards, but two other possible receptions went off his hands for interceptions.

--RDE Will Smith had three tackles, but more important recorded the Saints' only sack along with his two quarterback hurries. He also batted down a pass and recovered a fumble.

--SLB Scott Fujita continues to play at a high level as he recorded a team-leading nine tackles and recovered a fumble.

--WLB Scott Shanle returned from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for two games and had five tackles. He also forced a fumble on the Texans' first series that the Saints recovered and turned into a field goal.

--K Olindo Mare, who has been shaky this season in hitting just six of 12 field-goal attempts, nailed a 52-yarder to end the Saints' first possession. It turned out to be his only attempt of the game.

--LCB Mike McKenzie had only three tackles, but he also broke up a pass in playing what coach Sean Payton said was a solid game.


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