NFC South Monday Roundup

The latest updates from the NFC South after this weeks' action.

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons have a major weakness in tackling, and with four physical games remaining against NFC South rivals Carolina and Tampa Bay, the problem could potentially bring down the entire team.

Safety Bryan Scott is the worst offender, which is a shame considering that he's a well-liked teammate, a hard worker and a standup guy. His tendency to whiff, however, makes for a major weakness in the secondary because fellow safety Keion Carpenter usually plays so deep that opponents have made a first down by the time he arrives on the scene.

Left cornerback DeAngelo Hall also tries too often to take out the feet of ball carriers, a tactic that's exploited when they see him beforehand and jump out of the way.

"Teams are not going to lay down for us," said reserve linebacker Ike Reese, an eighth-year veteran in his first season with the Falcons. "We have to play well every week. ... Good teams come in and take care of their business and get out. To me, we are a good team, but at the same time, every once in a while you see where our maturity level is not where it needs to be."

On offense, fumbles are a glaring problem. Atlanta has fumbled nine times in the last two weeks -- losing five -- and four of them resulted in points for the Dolphins and Packers. The recent culprits were fullback Justin Griffith, running back Warrick Dunn, punt returner Allen Rossum, quarterback Michael Vick and rookie receiver Roddy White.

With the Buccaneers visiting the Georgia Dome this week, Atlanta must take better care on offense and create more problems for opponents on defense.

"We didn't do a good job (against Green Bay) of protecting the ball, and we didn't do a good job of taking the ball away," head coach Jim Mora said. "It's tough to win in this league when you do that, especially when you're playing Brett Favre. You keep giving him turns, and he's going to capitalize. He's the greatest of the greats."

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The Packers entered with the third-worst rushing attack and an undrafted rookie running back making his first career start. Those realizations did nothing to help the Falcons, who let Samko Gado run 25 times for 103 yards in Green Bay's 33-25 win at the Georgia Dome. Gado scored three touchdowns, including a 1-yard shovel pass from Brett Favre.

Under defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, the Falcons usually benefit from soft coverage because they avoid big plays and create turnovers. Favre didn't complete a pass longer than 21 yards, but 14 of his balls went 10 or more. Poor defense on underneath routes was deadly, particularly with safety Bryan Scott missing tackles and rookie strong-side linebacker Michael Boley consistently covered up by a big tight end like Bubba Franks.

Allen Rossum continues to struggle as the return specialist, so much so that one has to wonder how much longer coach Jim Mora and special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis can give him the benefit of doubt. Tackling on kickoff and punt coverage is another problem for DeCamillis, whose units lack consistency.

"I don't think there's any one person or any one phase that you can single out," Mora said. "I think you put this one on the Atlanta Falcons football team."

--QB Michael Vick proved how meaningless the NFL's rating system is when applied to him. He posted a 108.9 rating against the Packers and completed 20 of 30 passes for 209 yards, but Vick's indecisiveness played a big role in the loss. In three starts in which he's posted ratings of 58 or worse, Vick is 3-0 this season. Go figure.

--RB T.J. Duckett averaged 7.8 yards on four attempts against the Packers, so inquiring minds want to know why he didn't get more chances. Well, probably because Atlanta was just 2-for-7 on third-down chances after Michael Vick's short pass to Alge Crumpler netted minus-1 yard early in the fourth quarter.

--WLB Demorrio Williams continues to excel since he moved from the strong side. Against Green Bay, he had 13 tackles, one interception, one pass defensed and a forced fumble. Williams needs to improve at times in recognizing formations and dropping into coverage, but he has tremendous upside.

--UT Rod Coleman has been nearly invisible since earning the NFC defensive player of the month award for October. Opponents have done a good job of scheming him out the game by having their quarterbacks take three-step drops or fewer and getting the ball out quickly.

--C Todd McClure combined with QB Michael Vick for a fumbled snap exchange that cost the Falcons a chance to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Packers. McClure recovered the loose ball, but the Falcons had to settle for a Todd Peterson field goal.

New Orleans Saints

A bye week gave Saints coach Jim Haslett an opportunity to reflect, as difficult as that may have been, on one of the toughest seasons any sports team could ever imagine.

Haslett knew things were going to be rough when his team, which began training camp with aspirations of reaching the playoffs for the first time since the 2000 season, was chased from its home by Hurricane Katrina in late August.

But there's no way he could have imagined what was to come - a 2-7 record, a five-game losing streak for the first time in his career and injuries galore. On top of that were the distractions about where his team would play this year and where it will play in 2006.

"I've never been 2-7 as a coach at any level, and I don't know how to handle it," Haslett said. "If you stay in this league long enough, you'll have a few of them (long losing streaks).

"It's hard on me, it's hard on the players, it's hard on the coaches," he said. "It's hard probably on everybody in this building. It's not fun to go through. With everything going on and besides your record, it's a hard deal."

Still, Haslett hasn't given up on the 2005 season. Before taking a four-day break last weekend to return to his home outside New Orleans, he vowed to do whatever he can to salvage something from this miserable season.

The rest may be just as tough as the first nine weeks, however. The Saints have seven games remaining, starting with a road game Sunday against the two-time defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. But Haslett isn't worried about his team not playing hard.

"The one thing I do like about our football team is they'll come out and practice hard, and they will play hard," he said.

It's difficult to find anything positive in the Saints' 2-7 season, which began with a promising win over the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 11. But that's about all they can savor from a season gone bad.

Losers of five straight for the first time under coach Jim Haslett and the first time since Mike Ditka's final season in 1999, almost everything that could have gone wrong has.

If there's anything the Saints can be pleased about, it's the play of the secondary. Even though they have given up some big plays, they've been much better than in past years despite injuries to cornerback Fakhir Brown and strong safety Jay Bellamy.

Free safety Dwight Smith, who moved to strong safety when Bellamy was lost for the season, and rookie Josh Bullocks, who was inserted into Smith's spot, have proven to be ballhawks and have teamed with cornerbacks Mike McKenzie, Fred Thomas and Brown to hold teams to 167.8 yards passing a game - which ranks fifth in the league.

It's easy to see why the Saints are in the predicament they're in when you look at two key statistical categories: turnovers and penalties.

After nine games, the Saints are at the bottom of the takeaway-giveaway table at minus-13. That number is driven up by a league-high 27 giveways, but more important are the points - 103 - opposing teams have scored off those mistakes. On the other hand, the Saints have scored just 22 points off their 14 takeaways.

The Saints also have committed 82 penalties for an average of 9.1 per game. Only Oakland (10.1), Tampa Bay (9.8), Baltimore (9.6) and Miami (9.6) had averaged more penalties than the Saints going into Week 10. As a result, the Saints are well on their way to breaking the club records (129 penalties, 1,141 yards) they set last season.

Shaky quarterback play, poor offensive line play and a running game that hasn't produced like the Saints thought it would have also contributed heavily to their 2-7 record.

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--WR Nate Poole, who was injured in the Saints' last game with the Chicago Bears on Nov. 6, will have surgery to repair torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments and a torn patellar tendon in his right knee.

--MLB Courtney Watson will likely miss Sunday's game with the New England Patriots because of a sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee.

--TE Ernie Conwell will probably be sidelined for the Patriots game with a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and could be out for up to three more games.

--TE Shad Meier, who did not play in the game with the Bears because of a hip injury, will likely be questionable for the Patriots' game.

-- WLB T.J. Slaughter has missed the last five games with a pulled abdominal muscle and will be questionable for the Patriots.

--RB Antowain Smith had a sore knee last week, but should be ready for Sunday's game with the Patriots.

--DL Tony Bryant has a knee problem, but is expected to play against the Patriots.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers believe Chris Simms took a big step in Sunday's 36-35 win over the Redskins.

Simms passed for 279 yards and three touchdowns, including a perfectly lofted 30-yarder to Edell Shepherd to set up the wild finish. Once again, Simms' favorite target was Galloway, who finished with seven catches for 131 yards and a touchdown. Simms' TD to Ike Hilliard tied the game at 28 late in the third quarter before the Redskins took the lead on an 8-yard run by Clinton Portis with 8:19 remaining in the game.

"Those are games that you dream about as a quarterback," coach Jon Gruden said of Simms, the son of Giants Super Bowl quarterback Phil Simms. "His dad won many games like that, bringing those Giants from behind, and this is a great start for Chris Simms.

"It's good to know as a football player, if we get the ball back to our quarterback, he can do something with it. He made a great statement in front of a lot of people."

Simms finished with a passer rating of 119.8 against the Redskins and did not commit a turnover for the first time in a game he has started.

"I think each week I've been out there, I've felt more and more comfortable," Simms said. "I felt good ... against Carolina. I made the one mistake and it cost us the game. So I just want to continue to get better each week and limit the mistakes, and I knew we could come out with a victory if I could just hold up my end."

Bucs players said Simms' performance Sunday instilled confidence in his teammates.

"It's never been a question of talent," tight end Dave Moore said. "He's got a great arm, he's got great feet. He's just got to get in there, get comfortable, make the right reads and make decisions. It's nice to see him do it. For a young guy, it's 90 percent confidence and not second-guessing yourself for that split second. He did that tonight, and hopefully he'll be able to grow on it."

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Mike Alstott barreled into the end zone for the game-winning conversion run with 58 seconds remaining, giving the Buccaneers a 36-35 win over the Redskins. Alstott's run came one play after the Redskins blocked the potential tying extra point but were penalized for being offside.

Given another chance, Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden went for the win.

With Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington 6 yards deep in the end zone trying to time the jump on the two-point conversion, Alstott remained on his feet during the run and twisted onto the goal line.

The play was upheld after a review by replay officials, and the Bucs defense made the lead stand up by stopping the Redskins on downs at the Washington 44-yard line.

"It's amazing the emotions that take place in a minute's span," receiver Joey Galloway said. "I heard the blocked extra point. Everybody teared up, and it was like the end of the world just happened. Then we see the flag and you start to hear the whispers, 'Let's go for it. Let's go for it.' (Gruden) made the call, and it's surprising. Your initial reaction is, 'Really?' Then you get all excited, "Let's go!'

"When you have a guy like Alstott who played the way he did today, you take your chances."

Ignored for most of the first half of the season, the 248-pound Alstott hurdled into the end zone for touchdowns of 2 and 1 yards Sunday.

--DE Simeon Rice redeemed himself Sunday. Two weeks after being sent home from San Francisco for missing a team meeting, Rice had two sacks, forced two fumbles and made an interception in the first half of Sunday's game against the Redskins. "A little adversity. That's life," Rice said.

--RB Cadillac Williams, the fifth overall choice from Auburn, set an NFL record by rushing for 434 yards in his first three games, a feat that sent his shoes and gloves to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Since then, Williams has missed all or parts of three games and has been held to 82 yards on 45 rushing attempts and has lost a fumble that led to a touchdown in each of the past two games.

--FB Mike Alstott is expected to be used more with the Buccaneers rushing attack struggling. Alstott, who had 11 carries prior to Sunday, rushed nine times for 21 yards. But he scored two touchdowns and had the game-winning two-point conversion against the Redskins.

--WR Michael Clayton was inactive Sunday against the Redskins due to a knee bruise. It snapped a streak of 24 straight games played for Clayton.

--WR Edell Shepherd had just two catches for 12 yards this season entering Sunday's game against Washington. But with Michael Clayton missing the first game of his career due to a knee bruise, Shepherd finally saw some playing time. He responded by catching three passes for 87 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown with 58 seconds remaining that led to the Bucs' win. He also had a 46-yard reception.

--WR Joey Galloway is having a Pro Bowl year. Galloway caught seven passes for 131 yards and a touchdown against Washington, his 13th TD in his past 14 games.

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