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NFC South Roundup, Week 12

Posted Nov 20, 2012

Atlanta survived a six-turnover scare at home against Arizona but is still looking for run-defense answers, while New Orleans is dealing with a new injury on its O-Line


A quick look at the news being generated by the other three teams in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' division:

 

Three fourths of Tampa Bay's division is now in serious playoff contention after the Buccaneers improved to 6-4 and the Saints to 5-5 in Week 11.  Atlanta's comeback win over the Arizona Cardinals maintained its three-game edge in the division race, but that will be put to test on Sunday when the Falcons come to Tampa for the first of two meetings in six weeks with the Buccaneers.  The Saints, trying to become just the second team in league history to make the playoffs after an 0-4 start, are back to .500 and playing with confidence.  The Panthers, on the other hand, are trying to figure out how to better finish games after the Bucs' own comeback on Sunday sent them to 2-8.

 

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In Atlanta, Head Coach Mike Smith knows his team bucked an almost air-tight trend to get a win over Arizona in Week 11 despite losing the turnover battle, 6-1.  He's even got the stats to show what a rare occurrence the Falcons' 19-13 victory was.  "You can’t turn the ball over six times in a football game and win," said Smith.  "Statistically, the chances of that happening are two or three percent. In fact, since 2003 there’s been, prior to yesterday, 61 games in which there is a five-or-more turnover advantage to one team and only two times did the team win that was on the wrong side of that ratio. 59-2 since 2003 and we made it 59-3 yesterday, so we were very, very fortunate.”  The Falcons were also resilient, coming back from an early 13-0 deficit, and they certainly took advantage of the Cardinals' difficult quarterback situation.  John Skelton and Ryan Lindley combined to complete 11 of 27 passes for just 70 yards, though they did not throw a pick.  Like the Buccaneers, the Falcons have had to dig deep into their cornerback reserves this year, and on Sunday that included a significant increase in action for CB Robert McClain.  McClain had a team-high seven tackles plus a pass-defensed against Arizona, but Smith knows he and his secondary mates have a tough test ahead with Tampa Bay's receivers.  "[McClain] played all the positions there in the secondary, in terms of the corner and the nickel corner for us, he even had to play in our dime package. It’s nice to see those guys were able to step up. It’ll be a big challenge this week. They’ve got some big receivers. They’ve got a quarterback that’s got a big arm that can throw the ball down the field.”  On the other hand, Atlanta' run defense allowed Arizona RB LaRod Stephens-Howling to rack up a career-high 127 rushing yards and 5.8 yards per carry, continuing one of the few consistent difficulties the Falcons have had this year.  Atlanta ranks 26th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (130.5) and 30th in yards allowed per carry (5.0).   Most of Stephens-Howling's production came on carries of 52 and 40 yards, and Smith said the problem was one of not making the proper gap fits.  “You have to make corrections, and one of the misfits was an unscouted formation," he said. "We didn’t align properly, and when you don’t align properly you don’t have a good opportunity to be successful. It was something that was really simple and should not have been an issue. We’ve got to be much better at it. We had opportunities to make them 10-yard runs or seven-yard runs and we missed tackles.”

 

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In Carolina, things were understandably a little rough after the Buccaneers' stunning comeback dropped the Panthers to 2-8 on the season.  DE Charles Johnson, one of the NFL's sack leaders with 8.5, was particularly upset after the game, sending out a tweet that questioned the preparation of some of his teammates.  On Monday, Head Coach Ron Rivera supported Johnson's message, if not necessarily its method of delivery.  "I wish he'd have said it in the meeting room or the locker room, but he's a captain, and if he sees something that he finds disturbing it should most certainly be pointed out," said Rivera.  "He stepped out and said, ‘Guys, everybody's got to have the right type of attitude to win this football game. We've got to have the right type of commitment.' I appreciate that 100 percent."  In a similar way, Panther players have been supportive of Rivera since Sunday's loss, which has fueled speculation that the team might make a change at the top.  Rivera believes he will be coaching at least through the end of the season, and his players want an opportunity to endorse their coach with more effective play on Sundays.  In particular, the Panthers are eager to prove they can close out victories after suffering their fourth loss in which they led in the fourth quarter. According to Panthers.com, the team has allowed more points in the fourth quarter over the past four weeks (52) than the first three quarters combined (47). "We have people looking and putting it on coaches, but it's us," said LB Thomas Davis. "We're doing it as players. We've got to go out and we've got to finish these games."  One factor that has hurt in that regard in recent weeks has been a small slump by K Justin Medlock, who missed a 40-yarder against the Buccaneers that could have made a big difference late in the game.  One week after firing their Special Teams Coordinator, the Panthers are now trying to resolve Medlock's recent problems.  "One got blocked, but he missed a couple you think he should make," said Rivera of Medlock's three straight misfires in recent weeks. "I talked to him after the miss and told him to keep his head on straight because you'll get a chance to hit another one at some point.  "He's a resilient guy. He's pretty tough. But we have to evaluate everything and look at it very closely and find out why."

 

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In New Orleans, things just keep getting rosier as a troubling 0-4 start has turned into a 5-5 record heading into the playoff stretch drive, as the team finally evened its 2012 record with a  38-17 win at Oakland on Sunday.  “I think the key is that this team has stuck together and weathered a huge storm and they didn’t point fingers," said acting Head Coach Joe Vitt on Monday. "All they did was try to get better every day on a collective basis. Skill development on a personal basis has been important to everyone. This coaching staff has done a phenomenal job of keeping the target on the next game, next practice. All we talk about now is closing this game out and getting ready for San Francisco [next Sunday]. That’s all that matters. That’s the only game we can play.”  The Saints do have to deal with a new injury issue, however, as right tackle Charles Brown suffered a knee injury in the win over Oakland and was replaced by rookie Bryce Harris.  With former starter Zach Strief still likely more than a week away from his own return from injury, Harris could get his first NFL start if Brown's injury is significant.  "Harris played pretty well for us yesterday," said Vitt.  Like [fellow reserve Eric] Olsen, he has athleticism, a little undersized and has a little bit better arm length. We’ll evaluate that position and do whatever we think is necessary to win.”  The Saints' defense gave up 404 yards to the Raiders, but that actually qualifies as a season low, as New Orleans is the first team in NFL history to surrender 400-plus yards in each of the first 10 games of the season.  Recently, the Saints have been able to negate some of the impact of all those yards by playing stingy red zone defense, as they did with a Malcolm Jenkins interception on Sunday.  "I would prefer to do that out at the 50-yard line or their 40 and get the ball back," said Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.  "We are facing good offenses and these are good football teams we are playing. They are going to move the ball a little bit. It happens to every defense. When you keep them out of the end zone and either make them kick field goals or, even more of a bonus, get a turnover, that’s huge. Our guys have really embraced and accepted what we are doing down there. I credit them for being successful down there."