Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 12:
Balancing act. With all the talk about Drew Brees and the passing game and New Orleans’ improved defense, the one thing that’s kind of been lost in the shuffle is the Saints’ commitment to the running game. Give coach Sean Payton lots of credit for realizing last season that the Saints needed to do something about their running game. And give Payton even more credit for carrying it out. It’s not like the Saints overhauled their roster to get better at running back -- Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and Mike Bell all were on the roster last season. What’s changed is Payton’s mindset. The Saints are rushing 32.4 times a game this year, compared to 24.9 last year. They’re averaging 154.3 yards a game on the ground, compared to 99.6 last year.
It's not the system. Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris is going to call the defensive plays for the first time in his NFL life against Atlanta. Oh, like that’s going to matter. Sad part here is the Bucs aren’t going to be any good no matter if they run Jim Bates’ defense or Monte Kiffin’s. Look at this defense. There’s just not much talent. By the way, a lot of people forget this defense started falling apart last year -- when Kiffin still was around.
Any LBs left? What used to be Carolina’s strongest area suddenly has become a big concern. With Thomas Davis and Landon Johnson out for the season with injuries, the Panthers are thin at linebacker. To make matters worse, Na’il Diggs is listed as questionable for Sunday. To make matters even more worse, the Panthers are playing the Jets, who happen to run the ball better than any team in the league.
Exploring options. There’s speculation out of Atlanta that the Falcons may be ready to test rookie Christopher Owens at cornerback. They’ve had lots of problems back there with Tye Hill and Brent Grimes each struggling during their time on the field since Brian Williams went down with an injury. If Owens has shown anything in practice, this would be an ideal time to test him. Tampa Bay’s receivers haven’t burned many cornerbacks this season.
Exploring options II. Keep an eye on Atlanta kicker Jason Elam. The guy’s been one of the best kickers in the league for a very long time. The Falcons weren’t just working out four kickers for the heck of it on Tuesday. They were sending a message. If he doesn’t improve his 62 percent success rate on field goals very soon, they’re ready to go in a different direction.