Atlanta’s offensive line. This team is a yard away from being 9-0. But the Falcons are 8-1 because they couldn’t score when they were at the goal line late in the game. Running back Michael Turner has taken tons of criticism and it’s obvious age is catching up and he’s not the same back he was a few years ago. But I put at least as much blame on the offensive line. The Falcons weren’t able to run the ball at all against the Saints, who don’t have a good defense. The Falcons haven’t run the ball with any consistency all season. It’s mostly because the holes aren’t there. Even when Jacquizz Rodgers or Jason Snelling have carried the ball, there hasn’t been a lot of room to run. I don’t care how much speed Turner has lost. He’s still big and powerful and should be able to gain a single yard if there’s any kind of blocking in front of him.
Ron Rivera, coach, Panthers. So, now he’s fired special teams coach Brian Murphy in the middle of the season. Like that’s really going to make a difference? The Panthers are still going to have the same players on special teams, so I don’t think it matters who is coaching them. Rivera is fighting to keep his own job and maybe he thinks a move like this will help his cause. I doubt it. Rivera’s the guy that hired Murphy in the first place.
Atlanta’s locker room. Although Monday night’s release of defensive end Ray Edwards certainly had a lot to do with lack of production, I think there was more to it than that. Ordinarily, you don’t make major moves when your team is 8-1. But I think coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff sensed the atmosphere in the locker room wasn’t perfect. Edwards hadn’t made any strong effort to re-claim the starting job he lost earlier in the season and I think there was some concern his lackadaisical attitude was spreading into other parts of the locker room. Removing him was probably a good idea, but the Falcons better hope that Edwards’ attitude hadn’t spread too far and they might need their veteran leaders to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, receivers, Buccaneers. Jackson is averaging 21.4 yards per catch and Williams is averaging 18.3. They’re the top two in the league among receivers with 30 or more catches. They’re classic evidence that Tampa Bay’s offense is exactly what coach Greg Schiano and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said it would be. The Bucs are running the ball and taking shots down the field and the formula is working nicely.
New Orleans’ defense. Yes, I put New Orleans’ defense in the “rising’’ category. This unit has taken tons of criticism all season and every bit of it has been deserved. There still are major problems that probably can’t be fixed until the offseason. But the defense played a big role in the victory against Atlanta. The Saints stopped the Falcons twice in the final few minutes and also got the Falcons off the field a few other times. That’s major progress.
Joe Vitt, interim coach, Saints. Despite an 0-4 start, Aaron Kromer held the team together nicely until Vitt returned from suspension. Since Vitt’s return, the Saints have played some good football and are starting to look like the Saints of old. They still may face an uphill battle to make the playoffs. But Vitt is a motivator and he has the Saints playing very hard right now.