A quick look at the news being generated by the other three teams in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' division:
Atlanta has opened up a two-game lead in the division, largely because the Buccaneers and Saints have not been able to pull out close games at the end over the last two weeks. As the NFC South has been the NFL's most competitive division since the 2002 realignment (the only NFL division in which all four teams have made the playoffs three times in that span), the Falcons are likely to see at least one serious contender rise from the three trailing teams. In the early going, however, the Saints are dealing with significant run-defense problems and the Panthers are trying to establish an identity on both sides of the ball.
In Atlanta, the Falcons are suggesting that their practice of remaining on East Coast time while traveling across the country is responsible for the team's remarkable success in recent years on the opposite coast. Indeed, Head Coach Mike Smith made adjustments to his team's schedule leading up to their trip to San Diego this past weekend, in order to get players' internal schedules lined up with the East Coast time they would be playing on Sunday. Apparently, it worked, as the Falcons drubbed the Chargers, 27-3, and are now 6-0 under Smith in West Coast games. Smith said he learned the process from Brian Billick when he was coaching in Baltimore. The win over San Diego included one of the more impressive Falcon drives in recent memory, as Matt Ryan drove the team 96 yards on 17 plays following a Ryan Matthews fumble inside the Falcons 10. Ryan converted four third downs on that drive alone and Atlanta is second in the league this season in offensive third-down percentage. "I thought the turning point in the ballgame yesterday was the 17-play drive for 96 yards after the turnover down in the red zone," said Smith on Monday. "It was a well-executed drive. It started out as a huddle drive and then we switched gears, we got rolling and went into a no-huddle." Smith has become accustomed to seeing Ryan, who currently leads the NFL with a 114.0 passer rating, shine at the key moments, as he did on that drive. "Matt has matured into Year Five. He's got a very good comfort level with what we're trying to get done. It's not just his arm strength, it's not just his decision-making. I think it's his pocket awareness."
In Carolina, the Panthers are looking for an identity, according to Head Coach Ron Rivera. "When you talk about different teams, you say, 'These guys do this, these guys do that,'" Rivera said on Monday, four days after his team's listless Thursday night 36-7 loss to the Giants. "Well, we've got to find exactly who we are. Are we a physical, aggressive, downhill football team? Are we an attacking, big-play team? Defensively, we've talked about going out and trying to ball-hawk a little bit, and when we've done that, we've had success. When we didn't, we struggled. That's an example of what I'm talking about. We're lacking consistency in a lot of areas, and we need to get back to that consistency." The Panthers ran the ball very well last year, ranking third in the NFL. This year, they're 19th despite rushing for 219 yards in a Week Two win over New Orleans. Carolina had just 10 rushing yards in a loss to the Buccaneers in Week One and just 60 last week. The Panthers say they are looking for a return to 2011 form by their offensive line and more big plays on the ground from running-threat QB Cam Newton. "We did a lot of things last year offensively that were very successful and we were very successful with the quarterback being who he is. Let's look at what we do very well and let's stick with it. That's what we have to do – stick to it and continue to pound away, pound away, pound away."
In New Orleans, the Saints are 0-3 for the first time since 2007. Acting Head Coach Aaron Kromer says dealing with that reality is the team's toughest task in some time. "We haven't been 0-3, the New Orleans Saints, for a long time," said Kromer. "We don't know how this feels, we don't know how we're supposed to act right now. But I know this – what we're going to do is face our biggest challenge, being 0-3 right now. We're going to look in the mirror and point to ourselves, like we did last week, and we're going to find out what each guy needs to do to get better, and what we need to do collectively." Statistically, the Saints need swift improvement on a defense that ranks last in the NFL in yards allowed and tied for 30th in points allowed after losing a 27-24 overtime game to the Kansas City Chiefs at home on Sunday. The Saints have been especially susceptible to the run, allowing a whopping 215 yards per game and five yards per carry so far. Jamaal Charles and the Chiefs ran for 273 on Sunday, and perhaps the Saints are feeling the absence of middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who is on the PUP list with an ailing knee. "Obviously we need to do a better job against the run," said Kromer after Sunday's game. "We didn't run the ball well enough and they ran the ball well. We need to find out what that is and get it fixed."