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NFC South Roundup: Week Four

Posted Sep 24, 2013

News from around the division, where the Saints are showing real defensive improvement, the Falcons are dealing with a rash of injuries and the Panthers are riding high after a big win Sunday

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Red zone struggles hurt the Falcons in their Week Three loss to the Miami Dolphins
  • Carolina's running game could soon see the return of backs Kenjon Barner and Jonathan Stewart
  • The Saints' defensive results so far have convinced many that the turnaround from last year's disaster is real
The New Orleans Saints increased their lead in the division with a big home win over Arizona on Sunday, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons fell on the road and the Carolina Panthers got their first victory with a stunning 38-0 whitewash of the New York Giants.  The Falcons are still adjusting to a roster depleted by injuries while the Panthers are trying to get their annual late-season surge started a little earlier this year.  With Carolina headed into its bye week and the other three NFC South teams preparing to finish off the first quarter of the 2013 season, it's time to  check in on the headlines from around the division once again.

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In Atlanta, the defending division champs are recovering from their second loss in three weeks despite overcoming the absence of tailback Steven Jackson quite nicely on Sunday in Miami.  Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers combined to produce 204 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in the 27-23 defeat but the Falcons couldn't overcome a missed Matt Bryant field goal and a Matt Ryan interception late in the fourth quarter.  Snelling enjoyed the extra work.   “[It] felt good," he said after the game.  "My hat’s off to my offensive line, wide receivers, across the board. All 10 guys when the runners had the ball were blocking their butts off and were able to allow me and Jacquizz to get downfield and make some plays in the secondary, and make some good runs.”  Rodgers, however, points out that the offense, which outgained Miami by almost 100 yards, was hurt by inefficiency inside the 20.  "We need to work on the offense," said the third-year back.  "We need to score touchdowns when we are in the red zone. That would have helped a lot this game instead of three we would have had seven. That has been our problem. We need to fix that and become a better red zone team. We have to minimize the penalties and play penalty free football.”  D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggests that the Falcons' offensive line is at the root of their red zone issues.  ESPN.com NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas noticed that issue as well but also notes that the Atlanta defense wasn't able to tighten up when it really needed to on Sunday.  The Falcons fell to 1-2 with their loss to the Dolphins and have the New England Patriots coming to town next weekend, meaning their first 1-3 start since Bobby Petrino's disastrous 2007 season is a possibility.  Both of Atlanta's losses have gone down to the wire, however, so the Falcon players have lost none of the confidence with which they started the season.  This week, the team is eager to move on and start preparing for the Patriots, according to Jay Adams' blog.  The team also knows that improved health would help after a rash of injuries left them a little short-handed in Miami.  After placing LB Sean Weatherspoon, DE Kroy Biermann and FB Bradie Ewing on injured reserve during the week (Weatherspoon is designated for return in eight weeks), the Falcons also went into Sunday's game without Jackson and starting left tackle Sam Baker.  With former Buccaneer Jeremy Trueblood, who was signed on September 3, starting at right tackle, Lamar Holmes moved to left tackle and helped the Falcons' line hold Miami without a sack.  Early reports have Baker as questionable for next Sunday night's game against the Patriots.

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- TE Jimmy Graham is off to another hot start, but his contract talks have been cooler

In Carolina, the Panthers are feeling the afterglow of a 38-0 pounding of the New York Giants in Charlotte, but Tom Sorensen of CharlotteObserver.com says that win was not the catalyst for a report that Head Coach Ron Rivera will maintain his job through at least the end of the season.  Carolina players will have a little longer to savor that win as the Panthers and the Packers will be the first two teams to take their bye week over the coming weekend.  That added rest could help a roster that has been depleted by injury as well.  Sorensen's fellow Observer blogger Joe Person notes that rookie RB Kenjon Barner returned to practice on Tuesday and that established veteran runner Jonathan Stewart is on pace to return in Week Seven and resume his backfield timeshare with DeAngelo Williams.  The last two seasons, the Panthers have made a habit of finishing quite strong after leaving the gates very slowly, turning a 2-8 start into a 6-10 finish in 2011 and winning their last four in 2012 to end up 7-9.  The Panthers were 0-2 to start the 2013 season, too, but now have confidence that they will turn their fortunes around earlier in the year this time around.  The win over the Giants was powered by the two spots on the depth chart that appear to have the potential to be dominant: quarterback and defensive line.  As reviewed by Cat Crave, Newton had his best day of 2013 with 223 passing yards and four total touchdowns, including one on the ground.  Meanwhile, the defensive front got to Giants QB Eli Manning seven times, led by DE Greg Hardy's three sacks.  Hardy was just as impressed with his rookie teammate, DT Star Lotulelei.  “He’s not a star,” Hardy told the Charlotte Observer's Scott Fowler. “He’s a superstar. And this superstar is a beast. I see some crazy things for his future. When and if he does keep developing, he’s going to be unstoppable.”  Fowler agrees, already foreseeing the possibility of Lotulelei surpassing Kris Jenkins as the best defensive tackle in franchise history.  Fowler also says it's time to "recalibrate what is possible" for the 2013 Panthers.

**

In New Orleans, the Saints are enjoying being firmly on top of the NFC South and one of only three undefeated teams in the conference, along with Seattle and Chicago.  A major factor in the team's quick start after last year's tumultuous 7-9 campaign has been a vastly improved defense, one that held Arizona to 247 yards and seven points on Sunday and one that SI.com's Mike Triplett says is "the truth."  The members of that defense, which set an NFL record for yards allowed last year, believe they have the potential to get much better.  "I think that's the bright side of our defense, is that we really don't have any stars, if you talk about big-name guys," safety Malcolm Jenkins told Triplett. "We've just got a lot of young guys with talent who are building confidence not only in themselves, but in each other.  So we really don't know how good we are or how good we can be. It's just all about going to work every day and getting better.   Obviously, with each win and each performance, we gain more confidence. But we really don't know where the ceiling is for this defense, so we go to work every week and treat every week like it was Week 1 versus Atlanta."  Of course, the Saints' success still hinges on the play of star quarterback Drew Brees, who threw for 342 yards and three TDs and ran for another score in the Saints' 31-7 blasting of the Cardinals.  Doug Farrar, also of SI.com, says Brees has put the team's 2012 controversies behind him and has found a new stability, no small part of which has come from the return of Head Coach Sean Payton.  Senior Writer John DeShazier of the Saints' web site says that Brees and the Saints' offense, which is ranked sixth in the NFL in yards and tied for 15th in points is just starting to hit its stride.  DeShazier had pointed out before the season's third weekend that the New Orleans attack had been somewhat held back by red zone problems; against the Cardinals' the Saints scored three touchdowns and a field goal on their first three red zone trips, and kneeled to end the game on the fifth one.  Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham had yet another huge game on Sunday, snaring nine passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns, but if there is even the hint of unsatisfactory news coming out of the Big Easy, it relates to efforts to re-sign Graham to a new deal.  Profootballtalk.com cited multiple sources in saying there was no recent progress in contract talks between Graham and the Saints.  The Saints also had to deal with rumors that they were working to trade RB Mark Ingram, a report that NFL.com's Marc Sessler shoots down, citing Payton's comments to the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Sunday night.

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