A quick look at the news being generated by the other three teams in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' division:
Atlanta's first loss of the season reduced its lead in the NFC South to three games over Tampa Bay, and also breathed life into the Saints' playoff hopes, which looked dead after an 0-4 start to the season. The Falcons are by no means struggling, only losing to the Saints when a fourth-down pass to Roddy White in the end zone from the two-yard line was batted away. The Panthers are still trying to find a winning formula, however, after dropping to 2-7 with a 36-14 home loss to the Broncos.
In Atlanta, Head Coach Mike Smith is having to answer questions about a loss for the first time this year, but the 31-27 defeat in New Orleans went down to the wire and was by no means a demoralizing outcome for the 8-1 Falcons. “There are positives out of every game and there are negatives," said Smith. "We were down by 11 and had the ball down inside our ten yard line, and we took it for a 90 yard plus drive. That says a lot about the resolve of this football team." Smith did pinpoint one of those negatives, and it's an issue that has been troubling Atlanta throughout the season, despite the team's outstanding start: Run defense. The Saints, the NFL's 28th-ranked rushing team, ran for 148 yards on Sunday, including 56 on an impressive touchdown run by reserve Chris Ivory. "We’ve got to do a better job across the board in defending the run," said Smith. "It’s been an issue that has probably been our Achilles heel on the defensive side of the ball. We’ve got some things that we have to clean up in terms of leveraging the football and taking good paths to the football, and then we have to work on our pad level as well. When you have good pad level and take good leverage and good paths to the ball you’re going to be able to play the run better. We did not do that yesterday." The Falcons didn't run the ball well on offense, either, but Matt Ryan made up for that, as usual, with 411 yards and three touchdowns, including 11 completions to TE Tony Gonzalez for 122 yards and two scores. The first of those two TDs was the 100th of Gonzalez's sublime NFL career. “It was great," said the 16-year veteran. "Of course I’d rather have it come in a victory. But you have to give Matt (Ryan) credit when he waited for me to get open and delivered the ball.” The day after that game, the Falcons released another well-heeled veteran, DE Ray Edwards, who had just one tackle against the Saints. Atlanta signed Edwards, the former Minnesota Viking, to a lucrative deal prior to the 2011 season, but he had a disappointing first year with the Falcons and this year had contributed just nine tackles and no sacks.
In Carolina, the Panthers weren't able to follow-up their streak-breaking victory over Washington in Week Nine with another win in Week 10, as the Denver Broncos came into Charlotte and rolled to a 36-14 victory. The Carolina offense, which has had an up-and-down season, managed just 250 yards, its lowest total since a loss at Tampa in Week One. The main problems: the return of struggles in the running game and on third down. The Panthers are tied for 25th in third-down efficiency on offense after an 0-12 performance against the Broncos and their rushing attack is 15th after a 52-yard outing. Due to injuries to Ryan Kalil and Mike Pollak, the Panthers have had to reshuffle their offensive line in much the same way the Buccaneers have, but they are still trying to find the right mix. "Obviously any time you lose a Pro Bowler and a leader like [Kalil], it's tough," said Offensive Coordinator Rob Chudzinski. "Between Ryan and Mike Pollak - who was our next guy up - we had to move Geoff [Hangartner] over to center. I think he's adjusted to that, and then we've shuffled and tried a couple of different combinations. But that's where we're at. We have to find a way to get it done." Like the Falcons, the Panthers made a significant personnel move on Monday, but it was on the coaching staff, not the player roster. Citing " philosophical differences and productivity," Head Coach Ron Rivera dismissed his special teams coordinator, Brian Murphy, and replaced him with Murphy's assistant, Richard Rodgers. Carolina allowed a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown to the Broncos and have generally struggled this season in such categories as punt return, net punting average, punt coverage and average kickoff drive start on both sides of the ball. "I'm looking to see us improve in some of our production numbers, more so than anything else," said Rivera. "I told Coach Rodgers what I wanted, that I wanted things simplified, for us to come back to fundamentals and basics. That's the direction we're going to head."
In New Orleans, the Saints are joining the Buccaneers in a midseason run to make a race out of the NFC South. The Saints made a significant move in that direction Sunday by handing Atlanta its first loss, in the process winning for the fourth time in the last five games. New Orleans is 2-0 since the return of Joe Vitt, their interim head coach, from suspension, but Vitt says the groundwork for the team's rebound was put in place long before he put the headset back on. "We have a formula around here to win and we’ve had one since 2006 and it changes on a yearly basis based on the personality of the football team," said Vitt. "This win that we had yesterday was a direct result of how hard this football team has worked from day one, when I wasn’t here. A setback against the Washington Redskins, against Carolina [didn’t get them down]. [The players have] rolled their sleeves up, have weathered the storm, have stuck together, have not pointed fingers and have tried to get better every day." The Saints are currently weathering the absence of one of their most dynamic offensive players, Darren Sproles, but that has also allowed them to showcase their well-cultivated depth at running back. New Orleans kept five tailbacks on their 53-man roster, ranging from 2011 first-round pick Mark Ingram to undrafted rookie Travaris Cadet out of Appalachian State. Also in that mix is Chris Ivory, a third-year player who has frequently had to wait for his opportunities but has always made the most of them. Ivory had 72 yards and a touchdown on seven carries Sunday, but it was Ingram that got the majority of the handoffs, running 16 times. Vitt would not indicate on Monday whether Ivory's most recent performance would win him more playing time against Oakland in Week 11, but did laud the young back for his powerful running style. "I think he is one of those backs that does a great job of running behind his pads," said Vitt. "He is one of those backs that at his size, he can make you miss. At the same time, he can lower his pads and run over some people. He’s always looking to get extra yards."