Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFC South Roundup, Week Three

A run through the headlines in the Bucs’ division finds a Falcons team that stayed undefeated despite a depleted secondary and a Panthers team that feels better after rediscovering its rushing attack

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A quick look at the news being generated by the other three teams in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' division:

The Falcons took over first place in the division with their Monday night win over Denver, while the Saints were sent to the cellar with an intra-division loss to the Panthers on Sunday.  The Bucs and Panthers are each 1-1 and facing difficult road tests against NFC East teams, as Tampa Bay heads to Dallas this weekend and Carolina gets a short-week challenge in New York against the Giants on Thursday night.  It was a week of discovery in the South – the Falcons discovered some impressive secondary depth, the Panthers re-discovered their rushing attack and the Saints unearthed a new resolve to focus on the task at hand.

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In Atlanta, one week after the offense led the way to a 40-24 road thrashing of the Kansas City Chiefs, the Falcons are singing the praises of their defense after a 27-21 Monday Night Football dispatching of the visiting Denver Broncos.  The team is especially pleased with how effective its efforts were to mislead brainy quarterback Peyton Manning.  "We were able to disguise our coverages very well," said Head Coach Mike Smith after the game.  "That's something we said all week that we had to do.  You have to make sure that you don't give the quarterback a pre-snap read and we were able to do that early in the game and he made some throws that we were able to convert and make some plays on the ball."  Indeed, it was three first-quarter interceptions that helped the Falcons build a 20-0 lead and, in the end, hold off the inevitable Manning rally.  All of that was especially encouraging for the Falcons – and worrisome for the rest of the division – because an already depleted Atlanta secondary became increasingly banged-up as the night went along.  Atlanta has already lost Pro Bowl CB Brent Grimes to a season-ending injury, and newly-minted nickel back Christopher Owens left Monday's game early with a head injury.  Cornerback Asante Samuel was also out of the game for a portion of the first half, though he was able to return and make a significant impact.  Cornerback Dominique Franks, who was released in the final roster cuts earlier this month but brought back when Grimes went down, played extensively and could see even more action in the coming weeks.

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In Carolina, the Panthers needed just one week to re-establish that, yes, they are a dominant running team.  The return of Jonathan Stewart, who missed the season-opener in Tampa, obviously helped, and quarterback Cam Newton got back into the mix in the rushing attack after being stifled by the Buccaneers.  After gaining just 13 yards on 10 carries against the Bucs' defense, the Panthers exploded for 219 yards on the ground in a big 35-27 win over the New Orleans Saints.  Carolina was criticized for its offensive approach in Tampa, but according to Newton the turnaround in Week Two was a matter of execution, not play-calling.  "The offensive line blocking like that, opening up gaping holes, makes Stewart, DeAngelo [Williams] and Mike [Tolbert]'s job very easy, and also mine," said the second-year passer.  "Execution – that's all it comes down to offensively.  If you can't execute, you're going to stall series-in and series-out.  We kept the ball moving forward and stayed out of second-and-long and third-and-long situations."  Despite that anemic rushing day in Tampa, the Panthers are already back up to number-five in the NFL's rushing offense rankings, after finishing last year in the seventh spot.  Head Coach Ron Rivera said the return of Stewart was important because it gave the offensive an "inside presence."  That in turn opened up opportunities for Newton to succeed in the passing game, and he threw for 253 yards.  "That was balance – rush for over 200 yards, throw for over 200 yards," said Rivera.  "That's what we have the ability to do. We've just got to continue to refine it, continue to use our weapons and use them smartly.  Yesterday was an example of what we can do when we're clicking on all cylinders."

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In New Orleans, the Saints are reacting to their 0-2 start by putting all thoughts of the playoff race aside and focusing exclusively on the next task at hand: the Kansas City Chiefs in the Superdome next Sunday.  "The guys are down but they are not out," said acting Head Coach Aaron Kromer.  "They have a feeling they are going to stay tight and stay together.  They are going to rebound in this situation.  We are going to stay focused on one week.  We are not thinking about the playoffs.  We are not thinking about other things.  We are thinking about winning this week.  Total focus is on the job at hand."  The Saints' most obvious concern is a defense that has allowed 75 points and is 32nd in the league's yardage ranking, because the offense is still #3 in the league and is about to face the other NFL team that has allowed 75 points.  "Our defense is going to get good," said Kromer.  "They are going to continue to improve.  We are in an upwards slope."  That defense is led by coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who actually has a pretty useful perspective for his team on how to get back into the playoff hunt after a difficult start.  "The last 0-2 team that made the playoffs and won the Super Bowl was the New York Giants in 2007," said Kromer.  "Steve Spagnuolo was the defensive coordinator.  He has information on how that happened that year.  We all have our own ways to go about it.  When we way we are really going to work on today and work on tomorrow and play the Kansas City Chiefs this weekend, that's what we are going to do."

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