NFC South Hot Topic: Dec. 26

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 17.

ATLANTA FALCONS

There isn't a shortage of in-house assistant coaches that want to be considered for the head-coaching job on a full-time basis once team owner Arthur Blank hires a general manager.

Interim coach Emmitt Thomas, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, all of whom have the respect of players, said they would love the opportunity to get their first chance to be head coaches.

Thomas has been a defensive coordinator before and is widely respected through the league. In his mid-60s and media shy, Thomas might not be the type of front man the image-savvy Blank would like. That said, Thomas could be the football man the Falcons need.

Zimmer, over the past few years, has popped on the radar as a possible head coach, interviewing with the Chargers last season and the University of Nebraska before it hired Bill Callahan. Though the Falcons are ranked 25th in overall defense, things didn't come apart until the past few weeks, when injuries and the wear-and-tear of the season have broken the team's spirit.

Zimmer is a tough coach but he also understands NFL players, having coached in the league since 1994, his first of 13 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys.

"You can be as hard as you want with these players but at the end of the day, they're still people and you have to treat them that way. You have to understand that if you want to succeed, they have to play for you not because you say they have to but because they want to play well for themselves and for you."

Jackson is the most openly energetic and savvy. He spent much of the season running meetings and installing the offense, only to step aside on Sundays so Bobby Petrino could call the plays. Jackson called the plays the past two weeks and he has shown to be an aggressive play-caller who can make adjustments quickly.

All three seemingly are long shots, since Blank appears to want to overhaul most aspects of the franchise. Zimmer and Jackson could also have their association with Petrino held against them. Thomas has been with the Falcons since 2002.

PLAYER NOTES

--Assistant defensive backs coach Joe Whitt Jr. has been asked by former coach Bobby Petrino to join the coaching staff at Arkansas, but Whitt has not committed yet because he would like to stay in the NFL. Several Falcons defensive backs said that Whitt is a good coach who they would like to continue playing for.

--DT Jonathan Babineaux's 40 tackles -- he had eight against Arizona Sunday -- are a career high. Babineaux has been forced into extensive action this season because of injuries to starter Rod Coleman.

--RB Warrick Dunn has 65 yards on the ground over the past four games since rushing for 70 yards on Nov. 22 against Indianapolis. Dunn has surpassed just 17 yards once -- Dec. 16 vs. Tampa Bay (32) -- in December.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

With the Carolina Panthers out of the playoff hunt, coach John Fox will continue to work younger players into the lineup in Week 17 against Tampa Bay.

The trend began two weeks ago when the team turned to Matt Moore as their quarterback.

But Moore was basically a move made out of necessity given the injury to veteran Vinny Testaverde.

But since then, there are several other younger players who have seen increased playing time.

Tight end Dante Rosario has taken a few reps away from veteran Christian Fauria.

Defensive end Charles Johnson was activated for the first time two weeks ago and actually started last week against Dallas due to the injury to Julius Peppers.

Ryne Robinson has seen a few more reps at wide receiver and is now working exclusively on punt and kick returns and improving in that area.

Safety Quinton Teal, an undrafted rookie, is playing well in a reserve role and has really stepped up on special teams.

Even rookie center Ryan Kalil saw action against Dallas, although he struggled.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Matt Moore will make his third straight start this week against Tampa Bay in a meaningless game for both teams. Moore improved this past week even though the Panthers lost to the Cowboys.

--QB Vinny Testaverde will likely retire after this season.

--QB David Carr is widely expected to be released after the season. Those within the organization realize signing him was a mistake.

--RB DeShaun Foster might be a little concerned about his job security. He has two years left on his contract, but it appears DeAngelo Williams is beginning to take over as the team's running back. That's a move many have been wondering for awhile when it will happen.

--RB DeAngelo Williams carried 10 times for 60 yards against Dallas.

--WR Steve Smith had nine catches for 137 yards and his first touchdown since Week 6 this past week against Dallas. He's now the team's all-time leader in touchdowns with 45. Look for Smith to bounce back with a big season next year when Jake Delhomme returns.

--WR Keary Colbert is an unrestricted free agent and few expect that he will be back next season.

--WR Drew Carter is an unrestricted free agent and someone will sign him as a No. 3 receiver.

--KR/PR Ryne Robinson had his two longest returns of his rookie season last week against Dallas. He has improved immensely over the last month or two.

--TE Jeff King remains Carolina's starter, but look for him to have a challenge next year in camp from Dante Rosario, who has played well down the stretch and seems to have more speed than King.

--C Justin Hartwig injured his knee in Sunday's game and is not likely to play this week against Tampa Bay.

--DE Julius Peppers did not play Sunday because of a knee sprain. Look for him to sit out this week as well.

--LB Jon Beason has been Carolina's most consistent rookie.

--PK John Kasay has put together a fine season as far as field-goal attempts.

--P Jason Baker has really tailed off in the second half of the season. He needs some work on his game.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Like a lot of other NFL teams at this point in the season, the Saints are limping to the finish line.

The Saints, who last week added defensive tackle Brian Young to an injured reserve list that already included running back Deuce McAllister, tight end Mark Campbell and kicker Olindo Mare, will be without cornerback Mike McKenzie when they travel to Chicago for the season finale on Sunday.

McKenzie tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on the third play of Sunday's 38-23 setback to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Pro Bowl alternate will be put on injured reserve when the Saints return to practice Wednesday.

McKenzie was tied for the team lead with three interceptions this season, returning two for touchdowns. As the Saints' top cover corner, he recently has been matched against opponents' top wide receivers more often.

Jason Craft likely will start at cornerback in McKenzie's absence. He was the nickel back with rookie Usama Young playing McKenzie's corner spot for the remainder of last Sunday's game. Safety Kevin Kaesviharn was the sixth defensive back on the field and veteran Fred Thomas could also be in the mix.

In addition to McKenzie, the Saints will also put reserve running back Jamaal Branch on injured reserve. The first-year player fractured his right leg while covering the opening kickoff on Sunday.

With McAllister already out for the season and Reggie Bush sidelined for last Sunday's game, Branch was the team's third running back. But after he went down and Aaron Stecker suffered a turf toe injury in the second quarter Sunday, the Saints had just one healthy tailback -- rookie Pierre Thomas.

Stecker returned in the second half and his status will be updated Wednesday. Payton said the team might have to sign another running back although Bush may try to play this week after missing the last three games with a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Drew Brees completed 30 of 45 passes for 289 yards in the loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Brees, who had no touchdown passes for the first time in 10 games, was intercepted once and sacked once. He had a passer rating of 75.1, marking the first time in five games he did not reach triple digits.

--RB Aaron Stecker led the Saints with 49 rushing yards and TDs of one and three yards on 13 carries with a long gain of 26 yards. He also caught four passes for 35 yards with a long of 26 despite missing parts of the second and third quarters with a right turf toe injury.

--WR Marques Colston left the game late in the first half after suffering a chest contusion and spitting up blood. He caught just three passes for 16 yards with a long of 11 before being taken to the locker room.

--WR David Patten started in a three-receiver set and had six receptions for 55 yards with a long of 16 yards.

--TE Billy Miller did not start because the Saints opened in a three-receiver set, but he caught three passes for 38 yards with a long of 21.

--LDE Charles Grant, who has been hobbled by a sprained ankle since the first half of the season, had one of his better games with six solo tackles, a sack and a quarterback hurry.

--RDE Will Smith recorded five tackles, a sack, a quarterback hurry and recovered a fumble against the Eagles.

--FS Josh Bullocks had two solo tackles, a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble, which the Saints recovered.

--P Steve Weatherford had another big day in averaging 48.5 yards with a net average of 48.3 yards on four punts. He dropped three punts inside the 20 and matched his season and career long with a 61-yard kick.

--RB Pierre Thomas, an undrafted rookie, caught six passes for 29 yards and ran for 17 yards on three carries in filling in when Stecker missed part of the game with a turf toe injury. Thomas also averaged 26.3 yards on three kickoff returns.


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