Carolina took the first step toward defending its consecutive division titles with a win in Jacksonville on opening day, while Atlanta kept pace with a thrilling Monday-night win over Philadelphia. The Buccaneers and Saints are now chasing those two teams after Week One losses, and they'll face each other this Sunday in the Superdome. The Panthers are putting star LB Luke Kuechly through the NFL's concussion protocol this week, while the Falcons are still making additions to their defensive line. In New Orleans, the Saints' beleaguered secondary may have lost another starter for an extended period of time.
With the season now in full swing, it's time once again to check in on the headlines from around the Buccaneers' division.
Atlanta Falcons (1-0): After finishing 29th, 32nd and 24th in rushing offense the past three seasons, the Falcons think they might have finally found a ground game with the combination of rookie Tevin Coleman and second-year man Devonta Freeman. The results weren't overwhelming in Atlanta's two-point win over Philly – 105 yards, 3.0 yards per carry, no rushing TDs – but Coleman and Freeman provided some well-timed big runs to balance Matt Ryan's passing. Ryan was also sacked just one time, which could indicate that the Falcons' offensive line is also moving past some significant struggles in recent years. Said Ryan, via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "I thought our offensive line did a great job. I thought we ran the ball really, really well. I'm excited about the two young backs that we have."
Coleman led the way with 80 yards on 20 carries and may become a favorite of new Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
That Falcon O-Line, which already added Andy Levitre, Gino Gradkowski and Bryce Harris just before the regular season, is expected to get more veteran help from the signing of tackle Jake Long, the former number-one overall draft pick.
The Falcons' defense under new Head Coach Dan Quinn, formerly the defensive coordinator in Seattle, looks like a more dynamic group than the one that finished last in the league rankings last year. Atlanta still gave up 399 yards to a fast-paced Eagles attack and didn't sack Sam Bradford once. But they did hurry Bradford into a couple mistakes, picked him off twice and forced him to throw 52 times by completely bottling up RB DeMarco Murray. Pro Football Focus says rookie pass-rusher Vic Beasley had a relatively quiet debut except for two outstanding moments.
Vic Beasley, showing a bit why he'll be a great LEO end in this defense. Once he transfers speed to power, he'll be dangerous.
— SI NFL (@si_nfl) September 15, 2015
Carolina Panthers (1-0): Carolina didn't have to sweat out its 20-9 win in Jacksonville the way Atlanta did on Monday night, but there was one turn of events that definitely put Panther fans on edge. Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly, fresh off signing an enormous new contract, hit Jaguars RB T.J. Yeldon in the chest with his helmet, then stumbled backward, fell and had difficulty getting up. That obviously put Kuechly out of the game as he was evaluated for a concussion, a process that will continue with a specific protocol this week. On Monday, however, Head Coach Ron Rivera said Kuechly "looks like Luke to me."
Losing Kuechly just before halftime could have been a devastating blow for the Carolina defense, but it managed to rally around interceptions by CB Josh Norman and LB Thomas Davis. Jacksonville QB Blake Bortles got off to a good start in the game to open his second NFL season, but was eventually stifled, completing just 22 of 40 passes for 183 yards, two picks and a 54.5 passer rating. He was also sacked five times. Norman returned his pick for an interception in the third quarter that broke open a one-point game, allowed just three completions for 15 yards on the day and ended up as the top-graded corner in the league by PFF. DE Mario Addison, who has bounced around to four teams in five NFL seasons, had 6.5 sacks in a reserve role for Carolina last year and started out the new campaign with two more.
The Falcons had to shuffle their offensive line a little bit when standout center Ryan Kalil suffered a knee injury in the preseason. Mike Remmers moved to center from right tackle and rookie Daryl Williams, a fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma, stepped in at right tackle. Kalil was back for the regular-season opener but the Panthers had hoped to ease him into the lineup with limited snaps. Instead, Williams suffered a knee injury in the first quarter, moving Remmers back to the outside and forcing the Panthers to stick with Kalil the whole game. Rivera expected Kalil to be a little more sore than usualthis week but didn't yet have a status update on Williams on Monday.
New Orleans Saints (0-1): The Saints' defense, which has lost a handful of starters to injury and other issues in recent months, had a tough time corralling veteran QB Carson Palmer in a 33-19 loss at Arizona on Sunday. Palmer threw for 307 yards and three touchdowns and wasn't sacked and the Cardinals' rushing attack added 120 yards and 4.8 yards per tote. Overall, the Saints allowed 427 yards and a whopping 7.5 yards per Cardinal play, and ESPN.com's Mike Triplett says the new players in the team's lineup ended up producing familiar results.
That defense may have lost another player, as starting safety Rafael Bush reportedly suffered a torn pectoral muscle. That could force the Saints to rush Kenny Phillips into the lineup; Phillips hasn't played in a game since 2012 with the New York Giants and was released by the Saints last week, but he is expected to re-sign with the team following Bush's injury. New Orleans is also reportedly bringing back two other players they recently cut in RB Tim Hightower and OL Mike McGlynn.
Unsurprisingly, there were some positive moments on offense for the Saints, as Drew Brees put up yet another 300-yard game (355 on 30-of-48 passing, to be exact). With TE Jimmy Graham and several other prominent receivers leaving town during the offseason, Brees is apparently going to make good use of his stable of pass-catching backs. Even with C.J. Spiller sidelined for the game, Saints backs were targeted 18 times and caught 15 passes for 154 yards. However, New Orleans struggled in the red zone, getting just one touchdown out of four trips, and Nola.com's Larry Holder says that's a problem that's not going away in the absence of Graham.