TE Jimmy Graham's return from injury has helped the Saints take over first place in the NFC South
- As the Falcons come off a bye week, they're looking for ways to get more big plays out of Julio Jones
- Carolina faces what appears to be a favorable schedule as they try to reel the Saints back in
- Several Saints running backs are returning from injury but Mark Ingram may have the lead role now
The New Orleans Saints lead the NFC South with a .500 record, but more importantly they've won two in a row, picked up a long-awaited victory on the road and have several key players rounding into better health. With Carolina still hurting on the offensive line and looking for an identity on both sides of the ball, and with the upcoming Atlanta-Tampa Bay game pitting two teams with a combined three wins, the division is currently the Saints to lose. As the second half of the 2014 campaign begins, it's time once again for our weekly check of the headlines from around the Buccaneers' division.
In Atlanta, the Falcons got a much needed rest after their return from London, enjoying a bye week that at least helped injured defensive lineman Jonathan Babineaux (foot) get closer to returning to action. Babineaux took part in a bonus practice on Monday and is expected to be full-go on Wednesday. While Babineaux missed just one game, WR Drew Davis has been out since July with a foot injury, too, and he is also nearing a return. S Charles Godfrey wasn't injured; he was recently released by the Carolina Panthers. He stayed in the division by signing with Atlanta and thinks he can be ready to be an active part of a Falcons' secondary that has allowed the third-most passing yards per game so far. After the Falcons demolished the Buccaneers on a Thursday night in Week Three, 56-14, S Kemal Ishmael (who contributed to the blowout with a pick-six) said, "The sky's the limit with this defense." Since then, the Falcons have fallen on tough times, losing five straight to fall to 2-6, while the overall defense has sunk to last in the league in yards allowed. Head Coach Mike Smith discussed some recent struggles by Ishmael in particular and thinks the young player is going through a learning curve as he is asked to do more away from the line of scrimmage. "I think that his skill set is best suited for being closer to the line," said Smith. He's done some really good things, in terms of playing the run and being part of our run defense. I think we'll go through a learning curve in the past, the further he gets away from the line of scrimmage, but he's done some good things. Unfortunately, when a safety makes a mistake it's kind of like when the punter, kicker, quarterback, or the coach makes it, everybody knows it." The Falcons are still one game better than the Buccaneers at the midway mark, but it probably helps explain why the Falcons are expecting a tougher game from their division foes this coming Sunday. Given the depressed nature of the overall standings in the NFC South, the Falcons are also not conceding anything despite their two-win first half. DE Jonathan Massaquoi thinks he could help that Atlanta defense with more playing time, and the Falcoholic's Dave Choate looks into the possibility of Massaquoi having a huge second half to the season. In addition to the struggles on defense, which actually began in 2013, the Falcons have also had difficulty protecting QB Matt Ryan, which is no surprise given how many of their offensive linemen have been hurt. The Falcoholic provides a very detailed breakdown of how Atlanta's pass protection has suffered. WR Julio Jones, one of the most dynamic receivers in the league, also contributed to the Week Three win over Tampa Bay with a dazzling 40-yard touchdown catch. However, that is shockingly the only reception of longer than 30 yards for Jones all year, and Ryan wants that to change in a hurry. The Buccaneers, of course, will hope that doesn't happen for at least one more week.
In Carolina, the Panthers are not coming off a bye week, but they did get a little extra time to regroup after a Thursday-night loss to New Orleans in Week Nine. That loss dropped the Panthers to 3-5-1 after their 2-0 start to the season and left them fighting to find a team identity. "We've had our opportunities to bounce back, and we did for a while, said Head Coach Ron Rivera, as reported by the team's web site. "Now, we are in a lull. We are in a figure-it-out situation. We have to figure out who we are going to be. We've all been in situations like this where your division is down," Rivera said. "It ends up being the team that comes back, the team that gets up and keeps fighting." QB Cam Newton stepped up to take the blame after the rather one-sided loss to the Saints, in which he was criticized for a series of overthrows. However, ESPN.com's David Newton took a closer look at the film and says Newton shouldn't be too hard on himself; one large factor was a struggling offensive line that prompted play-caller Mike Shula to keep dynamic TE Greg Olsen in to block for much of the night. The Panthers think the return to health of RBs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams will add options to the offense and free up Olsen to be more of a pass-catcher again. Getting healthy and re-establishing a strong running game, previously a Carolina calling card, are two of the five things the Charlotte Observer suggests are necessary for the Panthers to rebound and make the playoffs. Shula doesn't think Newton should take too much criticism, either, insisting that the Panthers quarterback is playing better football this year. "We are not going to overreact to [the Saints game]," said Shula. "He is so much better now. I don't like the fact that people try to put one thing on a game or because there are a couple bad throws he's gone backwards? No." And there's little doubt that the injuries along the offensive line have been a problem; undrafted rookie David Foucault played left tackle against the Saints and allowed three sacks. The Observer's Joseph Person says that is the result of one of several gambles made by General Manager David Gettleman that have not paid off. According to James Dator of the Cat Scratch Reader, the scrutiny of Newton has become intense enough to make some suggest the Panthers would be better off moving on before his next contract, an argument with which Dator strongly disagrees. In the short term, the Reader also believes that the Panthers, having gotten through a very tough stretch in their schedule, now have a favorable slate of games in which to catch back up with the Saints. There doesn't seem to be much argument about the fate of DE Greg Hardy for the rest of the 2014 season – his domestic violence appeal trial has been pushed back into 2015 and he is not expected to return until that issue is resolved, though Rivera believes Hardy should be allowed back on the field this year.
Hey look, therein New Orleans, it's a happy team in the NFC South! That's what two wins in a five-day period will do for you. The Saints followed up a big home victory over Green Bay in Week Eight with last Thursday's victory at Carolina, breaking a seven-game road losing streak dating back to 2013. Getting those two wins in five days pushed the Saints back to .500 and into first-place in the NFC South, and it also had another benefit: A long and restful weekend for the Saints' banged-up players. Jonathan Goodwin and three running backs are among those who could be in much better shape heading into Week 10. S Jairus Byrd won't be coming back; he suffered a season-ending knee injury in October and is trying to look at is as a blessing in disguise as it gives his entire body time to heal. "This year has been difficult for me," he said, as reported by NOLA.com. "I had a lot of high hopes coming here. But this is a learning experience for me. I'm trying to use it to grow." Still, Byrd was the Saints' big-money offseason free agency acquision, and some are questioning whether it was a mistake. ESPN.com's Mike Triplett ponders that question and decides that, no, it was not. Those aforementioned three backs who could return to action are tailbacks Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson and fullback Austin Johnson, but in there recent absence Mark Ingram has stepped up in a big way and made a strong case to remain the lead runner. Ingram's strong running and the balance it has brought to the Saints' offense is one reason Jeff Duncan of the Times-Picayune sees the NFC South title as an inevitability for New Orleans. With the entire NFC experiencing parity, the Saints might even still have a shot at a first-round bye. "You kind of set your goals," said Sean Payton, as reported by Duncan. "The start of the season you want to play well enough to win your division and then you want to earn the best seed you can, etc. But when you are able to win a road game in your division obviously it is important. But each year that number count can vary to what is good enough to win it, and then what the seeding numbers are. Ten wins as a 2-seed, that's not pretty normal." The return of All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham certainly helped the Saints get that first road win of the year, as Graham caught seven passes for 83 yards and a touchdown. And Graham himself was sparked by a massive hit from LB Thomas Davis on an early-game interception (the link has an embedded video of the hit). "Early in the game they were trying to come after me," Graham said, as reported by NFL.com. "Even in my routes, I was just getting hit -- literally getting hit. So, I've got to protect myself better. It definitely got me going and sparked a fire underneath me. I just need to play more emotional. I think early I wasn't playing emotional enough -- at least for me. ... And when I do that, I think it adds something not only to my game, but it helps spur our offense."