<
>

Around the NFC South

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

PANTHERS

John Fox isn't the kind of coach who throws out statistics lightly. He often says "stats are for losers'', so it means something when Fox throws a stat at his team.

He did it this week when he and the defensive staff told the Panthers repeatedly they gave up 193 yards after contact in Sunday's loss to Atlanta. That stat is based on yards the Falcons gave after Carolina's defense made the initial hit. That's pretty surprising for a Fox defense. The Panthers are usually fundamentally sound in tackling, but they'd gotten away from that a bit even in their two previous games -- victories against Oakland and Detroit.

The Panthers haven't practiced in pads this week because Fox wants to keep his team fresh, but you can bet the Panthers have talked about tackling better.


SAINTS


Defensive end Will Smith is hoping Sunday's game at Tampa Bay isn't his last of the season. But that's a very real possibility. Smith, along with running back Deuce McAllister and injured defensive end Charles Grant, are facing possible suspensions for testing positive for a banned substance.

If Smith is suspended for the final four games, it will mark the end of what's been a disappointing season. After signing the biggest contract in franchise history in the offseason, Smith has been limited to 3.5 sacks.


The number of players on the injured-reserve list jumped to 14 Thursday as the Saints sat cornerback Aaron Glenn (ankle) down for the rest of the season. With another overhaul of the secondary likely in the offseason Glenn, a 15-year veteran, might have played his last game in New Orleans.


BUCCANEERS

Although his name has been thrown about in connection with the open head coaching job at Clemson, Tampa Bay associate head coach Rich Bisaccia said he hasn't been contacted by university officials. Bisaccia formerly worked at Clemson as an assistant and has a long history in the college game. Bisaccia has been one of Tampa Bay's most productive assistants this season. He oversees special teams, where rookie Clifton Smith has emerged as a top-not return man and punter Josh Bidwell and kicker Matt Bryant are having seasons that make them Pro Bowl candidates. Bisaccia also supervises the running backs and has done a nice job as the Bucs have had to juggle tailbacks and fullbacks because of injury.

It sounds like safety Jermaine Phillips, who has been out with a broken arm, could make his return Sunday against the Saints. If he does, that would send Sabby Piscitelli back to the bench. Also, tight end Alex Smith is making progress in his recovery from an ankle injury and might be available Sunday.


FALCONS


Atlanta coach Mike Smith has made several references to the "Over-30 Club'' recently. Specifically, he's talking about guys like John Abraham, Keith Brooking, Grady Jackson, Lawyer Milloy and Jason Elam. They're all over 30, most of them have played on winning teams at various points in their careers and they've provided valuable leadership for a young team that didn't seem to have a lot of leaders after an offseason purge that saw the departures of players like Warrick Dunn and Alge Crumpler.

The leadership from this group has been tremendous, but you have to wonder about the future of the Over-30 Club. Abraham and Elam are almost certain to be back with the team next season. But you have to wonder a bit about Jackson, Brooking and Milloy. They're all contributing a lot this year, but their age could work against them as the Falcons look at their roster in the offseason.