The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons played the NFC South's first intra-division game on Sunday and, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers both losing fourth-quarter leads, that outing produced a first-place team. The Saints, at 1-0, play a second straight division game in Week Two when they head to Tampa, and it appears they will do so with a thoroughly revamped defense. The more aggressive Saints' D may have had a lot to do with the Falcons' offense looking a bit out of synch, though Roddy White's sprained ankle played a part in that, too. With the Bucs, Panthers and Falcons trying to reel the Saints back in during Week Two, it's time to check in on the headlines from around the NFC South once again.
In Atlanta, the Falcons started the season with a loss to the Saints and its high-powered wide receiving duo at less than full strength. After the very narrow 23-17 defeat in New Orleans, Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White led the NFL.com recap of the weekend's injuries because the extent of his ankle sprain only became known after he was little more than a decoy in Week One. The Falcons are not apologizing for choosing not to elaborate on White's injury before the game. “In terms of injuries with players during the season, we have a policy that has been in place since I got here, we don’t discuss injuries," said Head Coach Mike Smith during his Monday press conference. "We have injury reports on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday per League initiative and rules. Everybody knows that there are different types of ankle sprains and we have to list it as an ankle sprain, and that is how we listed it. I’ve stood by that statement from the very beginning. We said he was going to play about 23 days ago, and he played in the football game.” The newest addition to the Atlanta offense, former Rams RB Steven Jackson, had a productive debut for Atlanta, averaging 7.0 yards per rush and putting up 122 yards from scrimmage. "I thought we were able to run the ball effectively at times and there were times when we could've done it better," said Smith. "I think he's a great addition to our offense and I think he shows what he's capable of doing in the scheme that we are running.” Jackson wasn't completely pleased with his first game in a Falcons uniform, however, as he failed to haul in what could have been a game-winning TD pass on Atlanta's second-to-last play. “When my number is called I expect to make plays," said Jackson. "Difficult, easy, whatever; that's the expectation I have for myself. I don't live in a 'what-if' world, I expect to make the play. I dropped the ball. Yeah it wasn't the easiest catch, but I'm not a person who makes excuses. But as we grow together, and as the guys see me play over the next couple of weeks, I will make the tough plays. Football is a game of inches and that's the expectation I have of myself.” QB Matt Ryan threw for 304 yards and had a passer rating of 96.8, but the Falcon offense didn't appear to be in mid-season form. The defense held New Orleans to well below its usual output in the series between the two teams, too, but the Falcons lost a game that went down to the wire, something they rarely did in 2012, and that was a red flag to Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Upon further reviewing the game, ESPN.com NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas noted another concern for the Falcons: the reworked offensive line. The Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter agrees, saying the "offensive line blocking issues are real."
In Carolina, the Panthers are already down a man as starting right guard Garry Williams suffered a knee injury in the opening-day loss to Seattle. On Monday, the team confirmed that Williams will miss the rest of the season due to ACL and MCL tears, which only adds to Carolina's troubles on the interior line. The Panthers played Game One without their starting left guard, Amini Silatolu, who is recovering from a hamstring strain. They began the game with Chris Scott and the just-resigned Travelle Wharton rotating at left guard, but Scott moved over into a rotation with Jeff Byers on the right side after Williams' injury. Silatolu may return next week, but the Panthers know they'll have to rely on their O-Line depth the rest of the way. "I think the thing we were looking forward to is having everyone healthy and really solidifying our depth,” said C Ryan Kalil. “If last season told you anything it’s that this game is unpredictable when it comes to injuries. I think a lot of times you look around the league, the really good teams you’re only as good as the back part of your team. That hurts us, losing Garry, but next man up.” The Panthers took a 7-6 lead over a strong Seattle team into the fourth quarter on Sunday but eventually lost on a Russell Wilson touchdown pass with 10 minutes to play. Carolina got just one more drive in on offense and got close to Seattle's red zone but lost it on a DeAngelo Williams fumble. Williams had actually run 16 yards to the Seahawks' eight before the ball was stripped from behind. He vowed not to repeat the mistake. "I wanted it back," said Williams. "This is our house, and we protect our house. We protect the ball. When the ball came out, nobody was more upset than I was because I knew the hopes and dreams of the 11 guys on the offense resided in that ball." Still, that play might not have decided the game if Carolina's offense had been more productive throughout the day. The Panthers put up just 253 yards of offense, including just 125 through the air. QB Cam Newton was held to 5.4 yards per pass, well below his mark of 7.98 last year. Afterward, ESPN's David Newton contended that Carolina was too conservative on throwing the ball deep, and Head Coach Ron Rivera conceded the point. "We ran the ball 26 times for 134 yards, 5.2 yards a carry; that's pretty successful," Rivera said. "When you put up those kind of numbers compared to their running numbers, you'd like to think we were going to win the football game. We do have to throw the ball a little bit more. We are going to continue to work on those things to get balance back to the offense." In those same notes on the Panthers' web site, Rivera also said that LB Jon Beason "ran out of gas" late in the game after missing most of training camp and the preseason while recovering from last year's season-ending knee injury. "He's going to try to continue to work on his conditioning," said Rivera. "We saw early on in the game he was explosive, made some tackles coming from the back side. We've got to get him into football shape. And he most certainly is working the rust off."
In New Orleans, the Saints are the only NFC South team celebrating a Week One win, after their early strike against Atlanta in the NFC South race. "I thought it was a big win for us yesterday," said Head Coach Sean Payton, who made his regular-season return to the sideline after being suspended for all of 2012. "Any time in week one you start off with a home game against a divisional opponent, it obviously carries a lot of importance." And something has apparently changed since the 2012 season Payton had to watch from afar: The Saints' defense, coming off a historically bad season, looked much more aggressive and effective under new coordinator Rob Ryan, as noted by The Times-Picayune's Jeff Duncan. Said the opposing head coach, Atlanta's Mike Smith: "That was not their 2012 defense." Despite Ryan's reputation, the Saints pressured Matt Ryan throughout the day without bringing a variety of exotic blitzes out of their new 3-4 front. "That was the plan going in," said Payton. "I think that anytime you can have and create pressure with a four man surface (pass rush) it certainly benefits you because you are covered in the back end and we will do that in this game. It was part of the plan going in.” The Saints got their pass rush primarily from defensive linemen Cameron Jordan, Akiem Hicks, Tyrunn Walker and Tom Johnson and outside linebackers Junior Galette and Parys Haralson. Haralson, acquired in a late-summer trade with the 49ers after several other New Orleans pass-rushing linebackers went down with injuries, recorded a sack, as did Hicks and Galette. The Times-Picayune's Mike Triplett regarded the defensive line as the Saints' most-improved unit in 2013 and thinks there is room for it to get significantly better. "We know we're not there yet, where we want to be," said Galette. "But we've got guys up front that are so talented, under the radar guys, guys that were undrafted like Tyrunn and Tom Johnson. When Glenn [Foster] comes back [from an ankle injury], he's gonna add fuel to the fire. Cam, everybody knows about Cam. But I still feel like he's underrated. Everybody on the d-line just has a chip on their shoulder. We just want to get after it." The Saints' defense was playing without one of its usual leaders, as inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma had been placed on injured reserve earlier in the week. However, Vilma got the Saints' one "designated for return" option on the season, so he could return after eight weeks. One former Saint on the other side of the ball did return, as the team re-signed WR Robert Meachem after Meachem was released by San Diego.