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NFC South Roundup: Week Three

Posted Sep 17, 2013

A second straight division win to start the season has given New Orleans an early lead in the NFC South, and two of the three teams chasing the Saints are now dealing with a fresh rash of injuries

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Falcons have placed two defensive starters on IR and have injury troubles in the offensive backfield as well
  • The Panthers' secondary is running thin after three players were injured on Sunday in Buffalo
  • The Saints' confidence is growing now that an improved defense is giving QB Drew Brees more help
The 2-0 New Orleans Saints grabbed sole possession of first place in the always competitive NFC South with their last-second win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, and two straight good showings by a once-beleaguered defense has the Saints' confidence on the rise.  Meanwhile, both the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers are dealing with significant injuries that are testing their depth on defense.  With all four teams gearing up for the third week of the season, which includes no intra-division matchups, it's time to  check in on the headlines from around the NFC South once again.

**

In Atlanta, the Falcons are two days into what should be an upbeat week at their Flowery Branch headquarters, but it has been tougher to celebrate a 31-24 win over St. Louis last Sunday when each day has brought bad news to the Falcons defense (and a little for the offensive backfield, too).  It started with this tweet from the team on Monday:

Biermann was the team's starting left defensive end, while Ewing was the only fullback listed on the Falcons' depth chart.  On Tuesday, news followed that starting outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, one of the team's best defensive players, will also head to injured reserve, although at least in Weatherspoon's case he got the Falcons' one designated for return tag.  Furthermore, it is estimated that starting running back Steven Jackson, who suffered a hip injury against his former team on Sunday, will likely miss up to four weeks.  The Falcons finished their win over St. Louis without any of those players on the field and also played most of the game without starting cornerback Asante Samuel.  Young defensive ends Jonathan Massaquoi and Malliciah Goodman were two reserves in particular who stepped up to fill the void.  “We have a backup at every position," said Head Coach Mike Smith.  "When we put our packages in, the backup is going to have to step up and make the plays that we anticipate they’re capable of making. There is a role for a defensive end.  There is a role for one of the linebackers, when he was playing linebacker.  We put that in place from the beginning.  As you know, your roster never stays the same from year to year, and it usually doesn’t stay the same from week to week.  We will make the adjustments and move forward.”  The Falcons likely envisioned their running game being a combination of the workhorse Jackson and the change-of-pace Jacquizz Rodgers, but veteran Jason Snelling was part of the solution on Sunday, as he often has been in similar situations in the past. “Jason Snelling stepped in yesterday and did some very good things," said Smith.  "He had the touchdown run; he had the nice catch on third down and one.  We’ve got a number of guys whose roles will change when you have injuries.  Jason has always stepped up, anytime he has an opportunity to go out there and play.  He goes out there and gets the job done and I thought he got an outstanding job done.”  Smith and his charges will obviously show no outward signs of weakness after the rash of injuries, but the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jeff Schultz, pointing out that WR Roddy White is also dealing with a high ankle sprain, thinks the team is in a bit of trouble.  So far, the Falcons remain prime playoff contenders, however, according to the various online power polls, which the team's website compiles each week.  The Falcons dropped a spot or two in most polls this week despite winning but are unanimously among the top 10.

- Saints QB Drew Brees is getting more help from his defense in 2013

**

There are some new injury woes in Carolina, too, and they have hit a secondary that some considered the Panthers' weakest spot on the depth chart heading into the season.  Free safety Charles Godfrey was one of three DBs to leave Sunday's loss in Buffalo due to injury – joining strong safety Quintin Mikell and cornerback D.J. Moore – but it is Godfrey's Achilles tendon injury that is most serious, forcing him to injured reserve.  According to Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer, the situation in the Falcons' secondary was dicey enough on Sunday that the coaching staff nearly moved linebacker Thomas Davis back to safety, a position he hasn't played since he was a rookie in 2005.  S Colin Jones, normally a special-teamer and a player with no starts and 24 tackles in three NFL seasons, was pressed into service during the Buffalo game and actually came up with what could have been a game-clinching interception if a penalty on LB Luke Kuechly hadn't erased it.  Buffalo's rookie QB, E.J. Manuel, eventually engineered a 24-23 Buffalo win with a last-second touchdown pass.  The first thing Carolina did to address its shortages in the secondary was promote S Robert Lester from the practice squad on Tuesday.  Head Coach Ron Rivera said that Mikell looks to be "touch-and-go" for the team's upcoming game against the New York Giants, and that the secondary would be organized "by committee" on Sunday.  "I think we have enough guys that we'll certainly be able to put some guys out there," said Rivera.  "We had [rookie CB] Melvin [White] down [on the inactive list].  The guy I've got to check is James Dockery to see if he's ready to play or not.  He'd be the big question as far as guys that might be able to help us out."  As for the likely starting safeties against New York, Rivera said that Mike Mitchell would be one of them and the team would take a "serious look" at Moore and Jones.  ESPN.com's David Newton, blogging on NFC South issues, thinks that rash of injuries and the Panthers' 0-2 start has produced an irritated head coach and an angry locker room.  In wrapping up Carolina's loss in Buffalo, Newton also suggested that the Panthers are still searching for a viable #2 receiver and that QB Cam Newton needs to do more with it when he is given good field position by the Panthers' defense.  The Charlotte Observer's Jones agrees that Carolina's red zone offense has been a big part of the problem in a pair of closes losses to open the season, calling that issue an ongoing "theme."  Panther players are aware that they need to get more out of their inside-the-20 incursions in order to support a defense that has played well.  “It’s tough because we know we need [touchdowns],” fullback Mike Tolbert told Jones. “The defense has been balling out, playing their [butts] off all game. It’s our turn. We couldn’t put it in the box. At least we came away with something, but it wasn’t enough.”

**

In New Orleans, there are neither injured reserve moves (yet) nor losses to worry about this week, so the first-place Saints are enjoying a growing sense of confidence that is now reaching the team's younger, less-experienced players.  “I think that we have had some character-building these first two games," said T Zach Strief.  "There has been a feeling here for a long time that it’s going to take a lot for us to be out of a game, to have no chance with the guy that we have behind center, we always have a shot.  And sometimes guys that haven’t played with somebody like that before or maybe that is not a consistent feeling, but two games like this you start saying, 'Boy this team can win.'"  While Drew Brees remains the team's most important player, the defense is doing a much better job of pulling its weight in 2013 after a dismal showing last season.  The Saints have won two very close games against division opponents to start the season, and in both cases a fourth-quarter defensive stop was critical to the final outcome.  “I think we are a confident bunch and to win the first game with a four down stop and then come to this game and having to get the ball back to our offense, I feel like we are flying pretty high as a defense," said LB Curtis Lofton. "Overall, we still left a lot out there.  We can be better than what we were.”  That defense actually did lose a player on Sunday in New Orleans, as cornerback Patrick Robinson left the field on a cart after suffering a leg injury. Robinson has not yet been placed on injured reserve, but that move might be coming and the team responded by resigning CB Chris Carr.  The 30-year-old Carr went to training camp with the Saints before being released in the final roster cuts.  The ESPN bloggers have more positive things to say about the Saints after two weeks, of course, including the notion that the team's defensive improvement is no mirage.  However, while sending obvious kudos in the direction of All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, blogger Pat Yasinskas does think it might be time for the Saints to try other options in the backfield than potential bust Mark Ingram.