NFC South Hot Topic: Dec. 21

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 continue preparation for their games in Week 16.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Interim coach Emmitt Thomas said he expects the Falcons to put forth a much better performance against Arizona Sunday than they did last week in their 37-3 blowout loss to Tampa Bay last week.

All of the turmoil sparked by Bobby Petrino's resignation as coach took too much focus off the task at hand, Thomas said. Even though the distraction of owner Arthur Blank's failed pursuit of Bill Parcells consumed interest, Thomas said his squad has been more dialed in.

"This is a distraction but we're going to make the best out of it," Thomas said.

Part of the reason he said things would be better is because the team actually has more days to practice.

Last week, Petrino left on a Tuesday, leaving players Wednesday to vent following a short walk-through practice. Thursday, although players went through drills, there was still a hangover from Wednesday and the focus wasn't there. Plus, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who called plays, was interviewing for the head-coaching job at Duke.

Tailback Warrick Dunn said players feel the uncertainty around the franchise, though, as coaches are trying to chart their next move -- linebackers coach Brian VanGorder already accepted the defensive coordinator's job at South Carolina -- and much of the personnel staff is shell-shocked by Blank's aggressive pursuit to find someone to replace general manager Rich McKay.

"I don't care who it is, any job in any profession, if your job is on the line, your mind is not going to be in the right place at the right time," Dunn said. "That's how it is."

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Byron Leftwich, who has gone from starter to third-team afterthought, said he has still not recovered from ankle surgery and a deep bruise to his tailbone. Leftwich damaged ligaments on his right ankle in his first start with the Falcons Oct. 21. The injury required surgery. He will be the emergency quarterback when the Falcons face the Cardinals Sunday.

--CB Brent Grimes, who the coaching staff has wanted to get on the field for weeks, will play in nickel and dime sets. Grimes is a small-college product who spent the summer playing in NFL Europa. Joe Whitt Jr., the Falcons assistant secondary coach, said Grimes has the second best ball skills on the team with DeAngelo Hall having the best.

--The flu bug is making its way through the Falcons. TE Alge Crumpler and WR Joe Horn missed their second practices this week Thursday because of the virus. Backup quarterback Joey Harrington returned to practice Thursday after battling the flu Wednesday.

--WR Roddy White has emerged as the Falcons' top third-down option. White is fourth in the NFC in third-down receptions with 20 (293 yards).

--Third-year defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux has quietly had a solid season. Babineaux has started seven games in place of injured veteran Rod Coleman and has totaled 42 tackles and two sacks. He also has a forced fumble.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

There's a pretty good chance the Carolina Panthers will be without defensive end Julius Peppers on Saturday night when they host the Dallas Cowboys.

Peppers sprained his knee during last Sunday's win over Seattle and has missed all three days of work, including Thursday's walk through. It's extremely rare when coach John Fox plays a player who has not practiced all week.

However, the team doesn't have to list an injury report until Friday. Expect Peppers to go down as questionable.

If Peppers can't go, it will be interesting to see who starts.

Stanley McClover came into the season as the top backup at defensive end, but has not played well at all this season. Rookie Charles Johnson, the team's third-round draft pick out of Georgia, played his first NFL game last week against Seattle, coming in off the bench. The Panthers don't have any other defensive ends on their roster, although defensive tackle Kindal Moorehead could slide outside.

Wide receiver Keary Colbert (knee) appears likely to miss his third straight game with a knee injury. Safety Chris Harris (hip) missed his second straight day of practice, raising concerns about his availability and quarterback Vinny Testaverde (Achilles' tendon) was also held out.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Matt Moore will start his second straight game on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys. He will need to be more productive than last week for the Panthers to pick up a win this time around.

--QB Vinny Testaverde missed practice on Thursday and it's uncertain if he will be the No. 2 quarterback or the No. 3 against Dallas.

--RB DeAngelo Williams will get more than three carries this week against Seattle, but will not necessarily start of get the majority of the touches. He carried 17 times the week before.

--DE Julius Peppers missed his third straight day of practice with a knee sprain.

--DE Charles Johnson, a rookie, could start for the Panthers in place of Julius Peppers.

--WR Keary Colbert (knee) has missed the entire week of practice and is not likely to play against Dallas.

--WR Ryne Robinson will be more involved in the offense this week with Keary Colbert out with a knee injury.

--RG Jeremy Bridges returned to practice after missing practice Wednesday because of a tooth problem.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Saints running back Reggie Bush didn't practice Thursday, but coach Sean Payton said that doesn't necessarily mean the second-year pro suffered a setback with his injured knee.

Payton said the Saints will take a look at Bush again Friday after he was held out of Thursday's workout. Payton said they decided to back off Bush after he worked on a limited basis on Wednesday.

Tight end Eric Johnson, who has a groin injury, also did not work Thursday after being limited Wednesday when the Saints began preparing for Sunday's game with the Philadelphia Eagles.

"We backed off them a little bit and we'll see where they are (Friday)," said Payton.

When asked if it was a bad sign for Bush and Johnson as far as their availability for Sunday's key game with the Eagles, Payton said it wasn't.

"I think part of the plan was getting a good day's work on Wednesday and then to see where they were at today," he said. "In both their cases, they went through individual (drills) and it's too early to say. We'll see how they're doing tomorrow."

Considering how well backup Aaron Stecker has played in rushing for 195 yards and two touchdowns the last two weeks, Bush was asked if there was less of a sense of urgency on his part to return.

"No, not at all. It's strictly based on coming back completely healthy," Bush said. "I'm pushing it. I'll be back at the right time. It's going to be a team decision, not just mine. We'll see what the doctors have to say."

PLAYER NOTES

--RB Reggie Bush, who has missed the last two games with a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, did not practice Thursday after working on a limited basis Wednesday.

--TE Eric Johnson was held out of Thursday's practice with a groin injury after working limited Wednesday. His availability for Sunday's game with the Philadelphia Eagles was unknown.

--DL Renaldo Wynn, who did not work Wednesday because of a turf toe injury, was full go in Thursday's practice.

--FS Josh Bullocks, who has missed two straight games with a strained quadriceps muscle, practiced for the second day in a row Thursday.


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