NFC South Hot Topic: Dec. 19

Hot Topic is your source for NFC South news at Bucsblitz.com. Today get updated on what's going on with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' division rivals, Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans as they begin preparation for their games in Week 16.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall might be having his best season in the NFL, but his on-field antics, outspokenness and playing for a wretched team cost him a third consecutive Pro Bowl appearance.

Hall was not named to the NFC squad, possibly because he did not receive a large base of fan votes. The last two seasons, Hall was a fan favorite, but his act has worn thin, especially with local fans, many of whom were bothered by him carrying a poster of quarterback Michael Vick on the field during introductions against New Orleans on Monday Night Football.

Tight end Alge Crumpler, who could have his lowest reception total since 2002 (36), had his string of four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances snapped. Crumpler has 37 catches, but he has been plagued by chronic knee pain and has hardly been the player he was over the past few years. He also didn't fit well into former coach Bobby Petrino's offense, in part because his sporadic availability didn't allow Petrino to incorporate him as much into the H-back role as desired.

Two upstarts, outside linebacker Michael Boley and wide receiver Roddy White, found out that you have to pay your dues -- and help your team win -- before earning enough respect to make it to the Pro Bowl. Boley is a rising star who could develop into a repeat visitor to Honolulu but he has to continue to produce like the guys who beat him out DeMarcus Ware and Julian Peterson.

White has been the one player on Atlanta's offense to produce (66 receptions, 999 yards) but playing for the lowest scoring team in the NFL did him no favors. He caught five of the team's 12 touchdown passes.

The Falcons getting snubbed is mild in comparison to the fact that the entire NFC South was shut out of the Pro Bowl.

PLAYER NOTES

--CB Brent Grimes was promoted off the practice squad to take the place of Lewis Sanders, who was put on injured reserve because of a partially torn pectoral muscle. Grimes, a second year player from Shippensburg State, may be small, but he is a great athlete and a bulldog who has earned his way on to the team. He could emerge as a player in the league one day because of his diligence and work ethic.

--Rookie CB David Irons is receiving more playing time as the season winds down. Irons is by far the team's best special teams player and he is projected to be the nickel back next season. Atlanta could take a look at him at nickel back over the next two weeks. That might not be the most encouraging development for free safety Chris Crocker, currently the nickel back. Crocker is in the last year of his contract and if Irons shows well in nickel sets, the writing could be on the wall for Crocker.

--The free agent signing of FB Ovie Mughelli might be one of the biggest personnel mistakes amongst a slew of them by the Falcons over the past few seasons. Mughelli said in a radio interview that he's played, on average, about seven to eight plays a game. Atlanta paid him $5 million in bonuses and signed him to a six-year, $18 million contract last summer.

--With Atlanta's offensive line in need of a complete overhaul, C Todd McClure's future with the team could be up in the air. McClure is the team's most consistent linemen and has been with the team since Dan Reeves was coach. But he's in his ninth season and Atlanta drafted Ohio State's Doug Datish last season to eventually take over. Datish broke his arm in preseason and was placed on IR. If Datish is impressive during the offseason, he could push McClure. However, with Datish being out of football for a year, asking him to start could be a huge risk.

--Besides there being great uneasiness among assistant coaches about their future with the franchise, there are rumblings that members of the front office are getting antsy. Owner Arthur Blank is evaluating the entire football operation and with so many players seemingly not being legitimate big time players, some of the talent evaluators could be in trouble -- one of whom might be president/general manager Rich McKay. McKay is one of Blank's most trusted employees but Blank has yet to offer him a vote of support.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

For the first time since their inaugural season in 1995, the Carolina Panthers failed to place a player on the Pro Bowl team.

That's not a big surprise, considering the Panthers are 6-8 and have been blown out of big games routinely throughout the season.

And, quite simply, it was hard to make a case for anyone to make the NFC team other than perhaps middle linebacker Jon Beason and safety Chris Harris, who has eight forced fumbles.

Both of Carolina's perennial Pro Bowl selections, Julius Peppers and Steve Smith, failed to make the team.

Peppers had his string of three straight Pro Bowl appearances snapped after an unproductive season in which he recorded just three sacks. Green Bay's Aaron Kampman, Seattle's Patrick Kerney and Osi Umenyiora of the New York Giants made it ahead of Peppers.

Wide receiver Steve Smith, the victim of erratic quarterback play all season, failed in his quest to play in a fourth Pro Bowl. Dallas' Terrell Owens, Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, St. Louis' Torry Holt and Green Bay's Donald Driver made the NFC team.

Before the season, Smith said one of his goals was to put up a 2,000-yard season, but he'll be lucky to break 1,000 the way things have gone. Smith has 73 grabs, but only 817 yards.

Meanwhile, this week's opponent, the Dallas Cowboys, tied a team record by sending 11 players to the annual all-star game in Honolulu, including quarterback Tony Romo.

The announcements were made after the team's open locker room session with the media, so therefore there was no reaction to the selection process.

Meanwhile, the Panthers were without five starters as they began preparing for the Cowboys on Tuesday.

Peppers (knee), Smith (undisclosed illness), receiver Keary Colbert (knee), and offensive linemen Geoff Hangartner (shoulder) and Justin Hartwig (ankle) were held out, as was reserve defensive end Kindal Moorehead (ankle). Coach John Fox did not elaborate on Peppers' injury saying only it's still considered a knee sprain.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Matt Moore will start Sunday's game against Dallas, the team he came into the league with earlier this year before getting cut. Moore has yet to throw a touchdown pass in seven appearances this season, but did lead Carolina to a 13-1 win over Seattle. His teammates raved about his poise in the pocket.

--QB Vinny Testaverde returned to practice on Tuesday, but will be a backup this week.

--QB David Carr been the team's No. 3 on the depth chart the last three weeks and will remain there.

--RB DeShaun Foster was outgained again last week by backup DeAngelo Williams, even though he got more carries. You have to think that eventually Williams will be the starter.

--RB DeAngelo Williams is averaging 4.7 yards per carry, which is 1.2 yards better than starter DeShaun Foster.

--WR Steve Smith missed practice on Tuesday with an illness. He has not caught a touchdown pass or gone over 100 yards in eight games. His is expected to play this week.

--WR Keary Colbert, who has missed the last two games with a knee injury, did not practice Tuesday.

--WR Drew Carter will start again at receiver this week.

--WR Ryne Robinson caught his first two passes of his career this past Sunday against the Seahawks.

--TE Jeff King is second on the team in receptions with 45.

--RG Geoff Hangartner (shoulder) was held out of practice on Tuesday after starting the last two games in place of Jeremy Bridges.

--C Justin Hartwig (ankle) didn't practice on Tuesday.

--SS Chris Harris had the Panthers PR department check with the NFL and they went back and gave him an extra forced fumble in the Houston game. He now has eight for the season.

--DE Julius Peppers was held out of Tuesday's practice with a knee sprain.

--DT Kindal Moorehead, a reliable backup, did not practice on Tuesday.

--KR/PR Ryne Robinson had a nice 17-yard punt return on Sunday. He has improved as the season has progressed.

--PK John Kasay made 2-of-3 field goals on Sunday, but he has kicked five kickoffs out of bounds.

--P Jason Baker did not make the Pro Bowl. He is averaging 44.2 yards per punt with a net of 37.6.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The Saints could get running back Reggie Bush back on the field faster than they expected, perhaps in time for Sunday's game with the Philadelphia Eagles and the regular-season finale at the Chicago Bears.

After tearing the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, an injury that has sidelined him for the last two games, Bush said he hoped to be back in time for the game with the Bears -- or maybe the playoffs, if the Saints qualify for the postseason.

But on Monday, Saints coach Sean Payton said that Bush is ahead of schedule and may try to practice when the team returns to practice on Wednesday to begin preparing for Sunday's game with the Eagles.

Despite numerous reports by national media saying Bush would be put on injured reserve after the Saints beat Atlanta on Dec. 10, the team and Bush himself remained hopeful that he could return before the end of the season.

Payton said Monday that he's more encouraged than amazed that Bush may play as early as Sunday.

"At the very beginning, there was a handful of reports that I thought were just out there, guys winging it and making claims about injured reserve," Payton said. "Sometimes those stories come out and you try to figure out where they got started. I'm encouraged, so we'll see what happens."

The Saints running game has actually improved since Bush's injury. Aaron Stecker has rushed for 195 yards and two touchdowns in the last two games, but Payton wouldn't say how many touches Bush would get if he returned. Stecker would more than likely still get the bulk of the carries.

"You have to take into account the injury and not just throwing him back in there," Payton said. "I think he's a lot stronger on it and obviously moving a lot better around on it. We would be kind of judicious as in what role and how many snaps."

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Drew Brees was sharp in hitting on 26 of 30 passes for 315 yards and two touchdowns in the win over the Arizona Cardinals. He had a long of 32 yards and was not intercepted. He was sacked once and had a passer rating of 132.6, marking the fourth straight game he has gone over 100.0.

--RB Aaron Stecker ran for a game-high 95 yards on 22 carries and scored on runs of one and six yards. He also caught six passes for 46 yards in bouncing back from a fumble on the second play of the game which led to an Arizona touchdown.

--WR Marques Colston had another huge day in catching eight passes for 114 yards and a 19-yard touchdown. Colston averaged 14.3 yards a catch and had a long gain of 21.

--WR David Patten had four receptions for 71 yards, including a 32-yard touchdown grab from Drew Brees that broke a 14-14 tie with just under two minutes to play in the first half.

--TE Billy Miller was instrumental as a blocker in the running game, but he also caught three passes for 39 yards. He had key receptions of 11 and 22 yards on the drive that helped the Saints run out the clock.

--SLB Scott Fujita had a team-high 10 tackles and two sacks. He had a quarterback hurry and also forced a fumble that the Saints recovered and turned into a touchdown.

--WLB Scott Shanle recorded four tackles and had a 26-yard return of a fumble in the third quarter. Two plays later, the Saints' offense turned it into a touchdown and a 28-14 lead.

--FS Kevin Kaesvuharn had only two tackles, but he was active in the back end of the secondary in breaking up five passes.

--P Steve Weatherford had his second-best kicking day this season in averaging 48.5 yards on two punts with a long of 53. He also saved a touchdown with an open-field tackle at the Saints' 45.

--SS Roman Harper posted two tackles and an interception, giving him a pick in three of the last four games.


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