NFC South: Bill Belichick

Saints' Ryan grew up under Belichick

October, 11, 2013
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METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan learned football from his legendary father Buddy Ryan, who gave him his first NFL job as an assistant with the Arizona Cardinals from 1994-95 -- as well as his aggressive mentality and a passion for the sport that still hasn’t faded one bit.

But it was Ryan’s time spent under New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick that gave him his first real taste for “situational football” -- something the Saints’ film junkie now thrives on.

“There’s no way I’d still be coaching without my experience working with Bill Belichick,” said Ryan, who re-entered the NFL as Belichick’s linebackers coach from 2000-03 after four years in the college ranks.

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
David Banks/Getty ImagesSaints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan earned praise from Patriots coach Bill Belichick for his dedication to coaching.
“First of all, nobody knows everything,” Ryan said when he was asked what he learned under Belichick during those years -- which included two Super Bowl championships. “The smarter you are, the more you want to learn. I think if you shut up and listen, you can learn a lot. And I did.

“The only system I knew, which was a great system, was all about pressure. And then when I went to Belichick, after coordinating in college football, I think I had one way to play and I knew it all. Hell, I had no idea how much I didn’t know. I learned so much about situational football. I knew nothing about situational football until I got with Belichick.”

When asked how he got hooked up with Belichick, Ryan joked, “I just obviously wooed him when I went and interviewed. … I don’t know. Somebody must have turned the job down.”

Ryan was quick to point out that he feels just as fortunate now that he’s landed in the exact same kind of “winning environment” in New Orleans, where he’s still learning from new colleagues like Saints head coach Sean Payton and veteran linebackers coach Joe Vitt.

Ryan has compared the two organizations often. And he described Payton and Belichick as “the two best coaches in football” as they head toward a battle of wits Sunday when the Saints (5-0) play at New England (4-1).

That idea of “situational football” is something that defines both Payton and Ryan. They both thrive on things like studying opponents’ tendencies and figuring out ways to exploit matchups and situations. Former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, who played under Ryan with the Cleveland Browns, recently described him as a “mad scientist” who spends more hours devouring film than any coach he’s ever been around.

Ryan described that very approach when talking about the difficulty of preparing for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

“I’m exhausted right now,” Ryan said. “And I think every coach on defense and probably the whole team, we’re exhausted. We’re trying to do our best job. They know we look at every situation from what we learned from them, [going] back the entire season and then some. And I went back in the red zone, they had 259 snaps, and it was a lot of damn work. But I mean it’s everybody. We’re trying to do our best to be prepared. And it’s very difficult against this team.

“[Offensive coordinator] Josh McDaniels over there and Bill Belichick and [offensive line coach] Dante Scarnecchia, I mean these guys are the best of the best. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

That respect is mutual. Both Belichick and Brady spoke highly of Ryan this week, as well -- and both of them mentioned the way Ryan studies his opponents’ tendencies.

“Just watching his defenses play, they’re always very well prepared,” Belichick said. “They’re a good situational team, they do things weekly that attack the specific opponent that they’re playing, keep you off balance and present problems that hit at your weaknesses. I think he’s got great experience from his total background, from his family to all the coaching that he’s done. He’s been in several different systems. Rob is a smart guy that really is a very dedicated coach. He works hard at football. …

“He’s got a good energy; he installs a solid confidence within his players because he’s always prepared. He knows what to do and I think that carries over to the people he works with … at least it did here. I really enjoyed having Rob on the staff here.”

Added Brady: “We got to play against him when he was the linebackers coach here, and I always enjoy competing against a Rob Ryan-led defense. He has his guys always prepared and ready to play. He is certainly a guy that studies the opponent’s offense and tries to figure out ways to stop what he will perceive that we do well. … He’s going to try to take those things away. That’s kind of the mark of what he does.”
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The New England Patriots are coming off their first loss of the season, and questions are mounting about the team’s revamped offense. There are no such questions right now for the New Orleans Saints, who are 5-0 and have looked like one of the NFL’s best teams.

That sets the stage for Sunday's highly anticipated matchup between these teams at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

“They’re a good solid football team all the way around. They’ve been impressive,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the Saints. “We’re going to have to play a good 60-minute football game on Sunday; that’s what it is going to take.”

In some ways, the Patriots will see a mirror image of themselves when looking at the Saints.

“I’ve said this before, when we started in 2006, we tried to look closely at the franchises that were having a lot of success and study closely what they were doing. New England was one of the main ones we looked at,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “These guys have been to five Super Bowls and won three [under Belichick]. That is pretty amazing.”

Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and Saints reporter Mike Triplett break it down:

Reiss: Let’s start at the top with this one, Mike, and focus on the coaches. Patriots followers know they have one of the best coaches in the history of the game. Now in his 14th season, Belichick has the Patriots consistently contending. For the Saints, what stands out from here is what a difference it’s been to have Payton back on the sideline this season. What is it about Payton that makes him one of the NFL’s best coaches, and how has this turnaround from last year’s disappointment unfolded?

Triplett: You’re right to start there. It’s remarkable how much of an impact Payton’s return (and his absence last year) has made on this team. Earlier this season, I would've answer that question by talking more about intangibles. Having Payton in charge clearly gives the Saints a confidence and puts them in a comfort zone that was lost last year. I think that helped them win two early games that came down to the wire. But lately, it’s Payton’s offensive genius that has been making the biggest impact. He’s always stood out as arguably the best schemer and playcaller in the NFL. And that’s been on full display the past two weeks – first when the Saints picked apart the Miami Dolphins at home on a Monday night, then when they won last week at Chicago with a patient, ball-control game plan. Giving Payton toys like Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles in recent years – not to mention quarterback Drew Brees – has been almost unfair to the rest of the league.

Since we’re on the subject, can you try telling me, in this brief format, what makes Belichick special? The Patriots seem to keep winning even while switching out 50 players on their roster over the years. I know that’s something the Saints have always admired and tried to emulate.

Reiss: Mike, I think the foundation of Belichick’s success has been what we remember from the start of Super Bowl XXXVI, in the Superdome, prior to the Patriots’ upset victory over the Rams in the 2001 season. The Patriots were introduced as a team before that game, as we all remember. There are obviously a lot of reasons for Belichick’s success, and books have been written about it, so it’s nearly impossible to narrow it down in a few sentences. But that’s where I’d start – the focus on the complete team in a salary-cap era that makes it hard to remain competitive year in, year out. There are many layers to that, and it obviously helps to have a quarterback like Tom Brady, but Belichick is also a teacher at heart. So team-first, where the 53rd player has a similar level of importance as a player in the 1-10 range. Then the fact he's a teacher with an incredible knowledge of football.

This week, there has been plenty of teaching as it relates to how they might be able to slow down the Saints’ offense. What has been the most effective approach you’ve seen teams employ against Graham and Sproles?

Triplett: There haven’t been many effective approaches against Graham. The Chicago Bears last week followed the formula that has worked best against the Saints over the years – a lot of Cover 2 zone defense that forced the Saints to settle for checkdown passes. But the Saints did a better job than I can ever remember of staying patient, settling for those short throws and avoiding turnovers. And Brees still completed 10 passes for 135 yards to Graham. Tampa Bay’s defense rattled the Saints in Week 2 by hitting Brees a lot with a good rush from their front four. But Graham still caught 10 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown. And if a team wants to totally take Graham away, like Miami did in Week 4, the Saints are happy to exploit that, too. Sproles had seven catches for 114 yards in that game before Graham caught a single pass. And Graham still finished with four catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns.

So how do you think the Patriots might approach it? They do have a better defense than most of the ones the Saints have faced this season.

Reiss: In a flip of the script that we had mostly seen from 2007 to 2012, the Patriots’ defense is carrying the team right now. The Patriots rank second in the NFL in points allowed per game (14.0 avg.), and that includes a Week 1 touchdown the Bills scored on a long fumble return. The key, from this view, has been the Pro Bowl-level play of cornerback Aqib Talib. As for this specific matchup, I’ve wondered about the possibility of Talib on Graham, similar to how we saw him almost exclusively cover Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson (Week 3) and Bengals receiver A.J. Green (Week 5). Usually you don’t see a cornerback matched up against a tight end, but maybe that outside-the-box thought is something the Patriots consider this week. Regardless, I expect the Patriots to be in their sub defense for most of this game. Their big linebackers don’t look like a good matchup against Sproles, so it’s imperative to get more speed on the field. I could see their top draft choice, speedy and athletic linebacker Jamie Collins, used more this week with Sproles in mind.

Speaking of defense, tell us more about how the Saints are getting it done on that side of the ball.

Triplett: Obviously a ton of credit goes to new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. He’s been pushing all the right buttons as a schemer and a motivator. Players have loved playing for him for both reasons. It’s reminiscent of the years when Gregg Williams was here, when they played with a ton of confidence. And he mixes up formations quite a bit – blitzing on occasion, but also rushing only two or three guys at times. Last week he caught the Bears off-guard early with some blitzes he hadn’t shown much yet. Just as key, though, has been the emergence of young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette. Jordan is a power-rushing 3-4 end, and Galette a speed-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker. But they’ve mostly lined up on the edges of a four-man rush. When teams can count on their four-man front as much as the Saints have this season, any scheme will be successful. The talent in the secondary is also solid across the board, especially now that they added veteran corner Keenan Lewis and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro.

So what will they be facing in Brady this week? I know he hasn’t looked like himself at times, but I’m still expecting him to hold his own in this high-profile duel with Brees.

Reiss: The Saints will see a frustrated Brady, and that’s often a dangerous Brady. The Patriots scored just six points in Sunday’s loss to the Bengals, and Brady’s streak of 52 straight games with at least one touchdown pass was snapped. That had a Saints tie-in, of course, as Brees holds the record at 54 straight games. Brady is obviously still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and is as competitive as they come. I’m sure he’s aware that in three previous games in which he’s squared off against teams led by Brees, he’s 0-3. Brees has thrown eight touchdowns in those games, compared with three for Brady. Furthermore, Brady has thrown three interceptions in those games, while Brees hasn’t thrown a single pick. Obviously, the quarterbacks don’t face off against each other, but knowing Brady’s competitiveness that still doesn’t sit well with him. Expect his best, and the potential return of tight end Rob Gronkowski would obviously help.

I was curious about your thoughts on how the Saints might look different, if at all, when playing outdoors. Obviously they are awfully tough in the Superdome, but last week’s game in Chicago didn’t seem to affect them.

Triplett: The Saints have definitely had a few off-days outdoors over the years, especially in colder weather or rain (playoff losses at Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco come to mind). They’ve had a lot of good days in those elements, too, though. They have the best road record in the NFL since 2009 (23-11, one more win than the Patriots). And they’ve got two outdoor wins this season (the Chicago game and an ugly 16-14 win on a rainy day at Tampa Bay). So I don’t think it will be some sort of mental hurdle, and it’s not like they’re lost when they’re outside of the Superdome. But it will certainly be a hurdle they have to overcome. They’re definitely even more dangerous at home.

I was stunned to see how dominant New England has been at home, by the way (31-3 since 2009). Brees rattled off that statistic Wednesday – obviously it’s one that’s been drilled into players this week. What makes the Patriots so good at home?

Reiss: When I think of decisive home-field advantages, with the crowd truly dictating aspects of the game such as false-start penalties, I wouldn’t put Gillette Stadium in the same category as a place like Seattle. But like you said, home has been good to the Patriots, and I think the comforts of being in that environment, coupled with having good teams, getting better as the weather gets colder, acing critical situations and playing in a division where the other three teams have fallen on some hard times in recent years has contributed to that as well. I’m guessing that Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, who grew up in nearby Medway, Mass., might agree with the thought that Sunday has all the elements for what can make this a special time of year in New England for fans of the game: crisp but comfortable fall weather and two talented, well-coached teams playing at a high level going head-to-head. I’m excited for it, Mike. What about the matchup are you most looking forward to?

Triplett: Easy. Brees vs. Brady. I’m sure I could give a more “under the radar” answer. But watching two of the best quarterbacks of all time going head-to-head is as good as it gets. And I think both of them will be fired up for this one for different reasons. Should be an intense fourth quarter.

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METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton and New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick don’t cross paths all that often. But it’s always been clear that there is a great deal of admiration and respect between two of the best architects in the NFL today.

Both coaches immediately mentioned this week that they share the same mentor -- Bill Parcells -- even though they’ve never worked together on the same staff. And Payton has always talked about how the Patriots franchise is the kind of functional organization he’s tried to emulate.

“[Belichick] has been someone certainly that I look up to,” said Payton, who said he first got to know Belichick when they coached the NFC and AFC in the Pro Bowl after the 2006 season.

Payton
Payton
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Since then, their teams have practiced together twice during the preseason. Sunday’s game at New England will mark their second head-to-head meeting in the regular season (the Saints routed the Patriots 38-17 on a Monday night in the Superdome in 2009).

“When you are young in this league, Bill [Parcells] talked about this all the time -- he had guys like [Tom] Landry, [Joe] Gibbs and [Chuck] Noll, older guys that not necessarily took him under their wing, but that he could visit with periodically,” Payton said. “We’ve had a chance to scrimmage in practice with New England and that opportunity for me to just spend some time with Bill has been always helpful and a positive experience.”

Payton literally emulated Belichick in one of his most famous motivational ploys before the two teams met in that 2009 game. Payton dressed up as Belichick and imitated his monotone voice for a video he showed his team -- running through the Saints’ roster and pointing out all of the players’ weaknesses (including Payton’s weaknesses as a coach). Payton figured he’d get a laugh out of his team -- but that he’d also get their attention, since they knew Belichick was probably delivering those exact kinds of critiques to his own team that week.

Both Payton and Belichick said this week that they’ve noticed similarities and differences between themselves. Obviously Payton is more offense-oriented, and Belichick is more defense-oriented. But the way they focus on all the details that build a winning program are similar.

“We have a similar general overall outlook to the game as how we try to coach of what things are important,” Belichick said. “When we practiced with the Saints they are very easy to work with. I think the things that we want to emphasize in practice, they want to emphasize. The ability to do things and work together because of common philosophies, not schematically, but in terms of approach to the game, practicing, preparing, working against each other, those things were very easy with the Saints.”

Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who began his career with the Saints before being released twice, sees those same similarities.

“You see how they want their teams to be mentally tough teams that are smart,” Ninkovich said. “I think that both coaches really try to hit home on and get every single player in that mindset of playing three phases, taking care of the football on offense and creating turnovers on defense.”

Belichick also spoke highly of the problems that Payton’s offense presents. The Patriots saw the Saints offense at its best in that 2009 game, when Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 371 yards and five touchdowns.

“I think Sean does a real good job of keeping the defense off balance,” Belichick said. “They really attack pretty much every inch of the field.”
As his team goes through a couple days of joint practices with Tampa Bay, New England coach Bill Belichick got asked about the Buccaneers’ current feature back and their past feature back.

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Blount
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Belichick had nice things to say about current Tampa Bay starter Doug Martin.

“He’s a good three-down player,’’ Belichick told the media Tuesday. “There’s really no reason for him to come off the field skill-wise. It’s a question of how they want to manage him. He can run, he can catch, he’s a tough kid. Good inside runner, good outside runner, can go the distance, handles the ball well in passing game; good on blitz pickup. Really, he can do it all.’’

The irony here is that Martin’s arrival in Tampa Bay instantly put an end to LeGarrette Blount’s time as the feature back. Blount stuck around last season and wasn’t used very much. In the offseason, the Bucs traded Blount to the Patriots.

Belichick said he’s been happy with what he’s seen from Blount.

“I don’t think there’s any question about his skills,’’ Belichick said. “They’re pretty evident and they have been throughout the course of his career. Tampa has a great back. I certainly understand their situation. They had a Pro Bowl back last year as a rookie. I understand that but I’ve had a lot of respect for LeGarrette and what he’s done through his career. He’s had a good spring for us and a good training camp for us. I think he helps us.’’

Let’s wait a while for a final verdict on that one. New England has been a nice landing spot for wayward players in the past and maybe a change of scenery will work out nicely for Blount. There’s no question Blount has good physical skills.

The challenge always has been keeping Blount focused. Only time will tell if Belichick can do that.

Falcons promote Lionel Vital

January, 11, 2013
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The Atlanta Falcons didn’t take long to find a new director of player personnel after Dave Caldwell left to become the general manager in Jacksonville this week.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff said Friday that Lionel Vital, who spent the past four seasons as the team’s assistant director of player personnel, will move into Caldwell’s old role.

“Lionel has assisted in constructing our roster and has been instrumental in our draft process and free-agent acquisitions,’’ Dimitroff said. “He has over 20 years of scouting experience and has had the opportunity to work under team-builders like Ozzie Newsome and Bill Belichick during his career. Lionel is a vital member of our scouting team and we are happy that he will continue to be a member of our organization.”

Vitale worked in New England’s personnel department with Dimitroff prior to joining the Falcons. Vitale also previously worked as a scout for the Jets, Ravens and Browns.

Interestingly, Vitale’s promotion sets up the possibility of the Falcons keeping one streak going. Former director of player personnel Les Snead was hired away to become general manager of the St. Louis Rams last year. Caldwell replaced him and quickly got hired away by Jacksonville.

We’ll see next year if Vitale ends up being another branch of the Dimitroff tree.

Around the NFC South

November, 16, 2012
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Time for a quick look at the top Friday morning headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Kent Somers writes that offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is likely to be a candidate for a job as a head coach after the season. That might happen, but Koetter can only help his chances at a bigger job if he can develop some sort of running game to go with Atlanta’s passing game.

Speaking of Atlanta’s running game, the Falcons came into the season saying they planned to limit the number of carries for Michael Turner. The running back said he still is adjusting to that role. He better adjust quickly, because the Falcons already are into the second half of their season.

D. Orlando Ledbetter writes that defensive ends Lawrence Sidbury, Cliff Matthews and Jonathan Massaquoi all have a chance at increased playing time after the release of Ray Edwards. Matthews is the guy I’d keep an eye on. He has the most value on special teams, and that means he’s likely to be active on game days and should get a spot in the rotation at defensive end.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Ron Green Jr. has a nice story on how linebacker Thomas Davis has made a successful comeback from his third torn ACL. Davis is believed to be the first NFL player to accomplish that, and that alone should make him a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year. But Denver quarterback Peyton Manning and Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson probably have a better shot at the award because they have higher profiles.

Although the Panthers named Richard Rodgers as their special teams coach after firing Brian Murphy this week, they’re using a committee approach, and other assistants are now involved with the special teams.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Mike Triplett writes that Sean Payton probably will take his time in getting a new contract done with the Saints. That would give Payton time to see if the Dallas job, which Triplett says is the only job that might lure him away from the Saints, does come open. If you’re a Saints’ fan, it’s time to start rooting for the Cowboys to go on a playoff run so that coach Jason Garrett keeps his job.

Deuce McAllister said he’ll be happy to see receiver Marques Colston break his franchise record for touchdowns scored. The two are currently tied with 55 apiece. McAllister said he has always admired how hard Colston has worked.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Erik Erlendsson has a feature on how fullback Erik Lorig has emerged as an important part of Tampa Bay’s offense. Lorig already has a career-high nine receptions, and has been doing a nice job blocking for Doug Martin.

Cornerback Aqib Talib spoke with the Boston-area media for the first time since he was traded from Tampa Bay to New England. Talib wouldn’t talk about his past troubles and said, when he met with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the focus was only on the present.

Bucs made right move on Aqib Talib

November, 1, 2012
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded away their best cornerback Thursday, which may sound like a risky move.

But I’ll go ahead right now and cast a vote for Mark Dominik for general manager of the year simply for getting something via trade in return for the troubled Aqib Talib. The Bucs also sent their seventh-round pick along with Talib to the Patriots and said their compensation is New England's fourth-round pick in 2013, which is about three rounds higher than I would have expected. Dominik deserves praise for getting anything in exchange for this guy.

[+] EnlargeAqib Talib
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireTampa Bay dealt cornerback Aqib Talib to the Patriots in a deadline deal on Thursday.
Heck, Talib isn’t even eligible to play for the Patriots right away. He still has one game left on his four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. In a statement released by the Bucs when the suspension was announced, Talib said he took Adderall without a prescription.

There also has been a Fox Sports report that Tampa Bay’s other starting cornerback, Eric Wright, soon will face a similar suspension for using the same substance. If that’s true, it may seem risky to go ahead and trade Talib, but it’s not.

This was a move that was long overdue. And, even though coach Greg Schiano previously said Talib would be back with the Bucs after the suspension, you knew it wouldn’t be for long. Talib’s contract is scheduled to end at the end of the season and I’m pretty sure the Bucs simply would have let him walk into free agency.

From the moment the Bucs hired Schiano, you knew he and Talib were the oddest couple since Oscar Madison and Felix Unger. When Kellen Winslow and Tanard Jackson quickly were shown the door, I was surprised Talib wasn’t with them.

This is a guy the Bucs put up with way too much trouble from in the past. Jon Gruden and Raheem Morris let Talib run amok because he had some talent. But Schiano isn’t Gruden or Morris.

He’s a coach who doesn’t put up with off-field problems. And Talib was a constant problem. He had a well-publicized incident with a cab driver, some altercations with teammates and was charged with assault with a deadly weapon in Texas, although the charges were later dropped.

At times, Talib would give the media the old song and dance about how he’d grown up and matured. But then he’d turn right around and do something immature. Talib had such difficulty managing his anger, I once saw him come very close to getting into a physical altercation with a member of the local media.

The Bucs might have to rely on young guys like Leonard Johnson, Brandon McDonald and Myron Lewis at cornerback in the short term, especially if Wright does face a suspension.

But the Bucs will be better off in the long run without Talib. Even if they had kept him just for the remainder of this season, there’s a pretty good chance they would have faced another headache or two along the way.

This way, the Bucs got rid of a headache and got something in return. That’s a win. Let's see how well Talib and New England coach Bill Belichick get along.

By the way, I now have dropped my dysfunction rating on the Bucs in this earlier column from 35 percent to 25 percent, in light of the Talib trade.

Around the NFC South

September, 27, 2012
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Time for a team-by-team look at the Thursday morning headlines from around the division:

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Dory LeBlanc writes that the Tampa Bay front four is looking for a performance similar to what it had against Dallas when it plays Washington this week. The Bucs did a good job putting pressure on Tony Romo, but they’re going to face a different style quarterback in Robert Griffin III. He’s a big-time running threat and stopping him won’t be easy, especially after losing defensive end Adrian Clayborn to a season-ending injury.

The Bucs will turn to veteran Roscoe Parrish as their third punt returner after Sammie Stroughter was injured and replacement Jordan Shipley struggled to field punts. Parrish had a lengthy and successful run in Buffalo. At this stage of his career, he might not be dynamic as he once was. But he should at least be able to field punts.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

With the team off to an 0-3 start, interim coach Aaron Kromer acknowledged that maybe the Saints were impacted by all the offseason distractions and didn’t prepare properly. I’m starting to think there’s some truth in that. But it’s still a bit surprising because this is a veteran team and coaching staff that should have simply been able to follow the system built by suspended coach Sean Payton.

As the regular NFL officials head back to work, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees refused to blame the replacement officials for the team’s slow start. Brees has been critical of the replacement officials, but said they were placed in a tough spot. I don’t think the whole saga was good for anyone, but I don’t think any calls by the replacement officials cost the Saints victories. The team was responsible for creating its own problems.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Former Carolina defensive tackle Terrell McClain has landed with New England. A third-round pick in 2011, McClain got lots of playing time as a rookie. But, in a mysterious move, McClain was cut in the preseason. I strongly suspect something was going on behind the scenes and the move was about more than football ability. The guy has some potential and New England coach Bill Belichick has had some success with reclamation projects in the past.

Linebacker Thomas Davis said the Panthers still believe they can make good on center Ryan Kalil’s promise of a Super Bowl championship. That may sound a little shaky after a 1-2 start. Carolina still has a lot of talent, but the Panthers better start turning things around soon if they’re even going to have a chance at the playoffs.

The Panthers are turning back to Kealoha Pilares as their main kickoff returner. That’s a good move because rookie Joe Adams had some issues with fumbles. Adams still has plenty of upside, but I think a little time on the sideline and some more work in practice might be the best thing for him at the moment.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Former Tampa Bay safety and current Fox analyst John Lynch says Atlanta safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud have gone from being “just guys’’ to taking their play to the next level. He’s right. Moore and DeCoud are off to great starts under new coordinator Mike Nolan. If they continue on their current pace, both could be candidates for the Pro Bowl.

Fullback Lousaka Polite missed Wednesday’s practice with a hamstring injury. This injury is worth keeping an eye on because the Falcons figure to test a Carolina run defense that hasn’t been very good on Sunday. If Polite is out, the Falcons likely will have to use running back Jason Snelling as a blocker in some situations.
Greg Schiano Douglas Jones/US PresswireNew Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano is making the most of his week coaching against Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

TAMPA, Fla. -- The two coaches who stood at the podium in the media room at One Buccaneer Place on Wednesday sounded almost exactly alike.

They spewed the usual clichés coaches say this time of year, about how they’re working to get their teams ready for the regular season. They were equally vague about injuries, personnel and their plans for Friday night’s preseason game.

But there’s one big difference between Bill Belichick and Greg Schiano -- 175 regular-season wins in the National Football League.

“I’d be foolish not to learn from Coach Belichick today, and I did," said Schiano, who has taken over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after running the program at Rutgers since 2001.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaPatriots coach Bill Belichick's "media savvy" is among the many leads new Bucs coach Greg Schiano is trying to follow.
That came after Schiano put his Bucs through a joint workout with Belichick’s New England Patriots. They’ll do it again Thursday and they’ll play each other Friday night at Raymond James Stadium.

Belichick probably is on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Schiano is a rookie NFL head coach. But there already is a lot of familiarity between the two, and that should come as some comfort to Tampa Bay fans who are worried about having a head coach whose only NFL experience was as an assistant with the Chicago Bears for three seasons in the 1990s.

“I’m sure he’ll do well," Belichick said of Schiano.

That’s a nice endorsement of Schiano by perhaps the greatest coach of this era. But the endorsement Belichick gave Schiano back in January likely was more grandiose.

Team officials have said they spoke to Belichick about Schiano when they were looking for a coach to replace Raheem Morris, and the message carried plenty of weight. Belichick wouldn’t go into specific detail about what he told the Glazer family, who owns the Bucs, and general manager Mark Dominik about Schiano.

“All I can do is just be honest," Belichick said Wednesday . “I think the world of Greg. I think he’s a good coach. He’s got a good personality, he treats his players well, he’s smart, he’s tough. He did a great job with the Rutgers program without some of the opportunities that some other programs that he was going against had. But he competed really well in that conference and against those teams. I’ve always been impressed with the way his teams performed. I have no problem saying that at all."

The relationship between the two isn’t the casual one that many NFL and college coaches share. Belichick’s son, Steven, was the long-snapper on Schiano’s final team at Rutgers. Even before that, the two had a bond, and Schiano sometimes went to New England to observe practices.

In his brief time in Tampa Bay, Schiano frequently has mentioned Belichick as one of the coaches he admires most and tries to pattern himself after.

“[Belichick] has a way of simplifying things," Schiano said. “I’ll hear some coaches do a three-page essay on how to handle a situation. Bill will say it in a sentence. That to me is being so familiar and the experience that he has that he’s able to see it clearly. Any good leader can do that, take the stuff that’s all over the place and bring it right to here."

Schiano already has mastered the art of getting straight to the point. His session with the media lasted 8 minutes, 36 seconds (according to my recorder). Belichick’s lasted nearly 17 minutes. But coaching is about a lot more than dealing with the media.

Some college coaches (Jim Harbaugh) have experienced success in making the jump to the NFL. Others (Bobby Petrino and Nick Saban) have not. Belichick said he doesn’t think Schiano will have trouble with the adjustment.

“I think he’s a very experienced guy," Belichick said. “He’s won a lot of games, he’s coached a lot of players. He’s coached NFL players, they just were in college, that’s all. The Vince Wilforks, the Devin McCourtys, all the guys that he’s coached, they’re NFL players, they just weren’t in the NFL yet. And he’s coached in the NFL. So he knows what he’s doing. He’ll be fine.”

It sounds easy, but Schiano is taking over a team that went 4-12 and lost its final 10 games last season.

“Well, it’s a big process," Belichick said when asked what it's like to take over a team. “I don’t think there’s any one thing. There’s no magic wand. It’s pretty much everything."

When you reflect on Belichick’s career, it hasn’t been as smooth as you might think. His first stint as a head coach was in Cleveland from 1991-95. His teams went 36-44, and the franchise moved to Baltimore immediately after Belichick’s final season. Even in New England, the Patriots went 5-11 in Belichick’s first season (2000).

But 10 straight winning seasons -- and those three Super Bowl titles -- followed.

Belichick obviously has evolved over time and he often has talked about learning from his mistakes in the early years. I’m sure Schiano has asked him about some of those lessons.

It’s true that there is no magic wand, but maybe having Belichick as his mentor can make the process a little easier for Schiano.

Around the NFC South

August, 22, 2012
8/22/12
10:13
AM ET
TAMPA, Fla. -- The New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are on the practice field at One Buccaneer Place. The portion of practice that was open to the media just ended.

We’ll be going back out for interviews after practice and I’ll have an item later on the relationship between New England coach Bill Belichick and Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano. In the meantime, let’s take a run through the headlines from around the NFC South.
  • Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones brings up a good point when he rhetorically asks if defenses are going to double-cover him, Roddy White or Tony Gonzalez. That’s a tough call and I’m sure it’s one every defensive coordinator on the schedule is giving some thought to.
  • The New York Times describes the Carolina Panthers as a “classic sleeper team." I have no doubt the Panthers are a team on the rise, but when so many people view them that way, do they really qualify as a sleeper team? By now, I think most people are pretty aware of Cam Newton.
  • New Orleans receiver Joseph Morgan, who had a long touchdown catch in the preseason game against Jacksonville, said he’s not resting on his laurels. Morgan has some perspective on that. He was a camp sensation last year, but ended up missing the season with a knee injury.
TAMPA, Fla. -- The New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be practicing together Wednesday morning.

I’m heading out to One Buccaneer Place to watch practice (at least the 30 minutes of it that are open to the media, which is all you can expect from Bill Belichick and Greg Schiano). I’ll do interviews before and after practice and will be back with much more after all that’s over. Hopefully, I’ll be able to work in an “Around the NFC South’’ post between practice and interviews.

Meantime, Belichick talked about why he likes to practice against other teams in the preseason. The Patriots previously worked out with the Saints before a preseason game in New England and the Patriots will take on the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on Friday night.

“If you feel like you can do something that benefits your team then you consider doing it,’’ Belichick said in a conference call with the New England media on Tuesday night. “I’ve talked to many teams about doing something along the lines of what we’ve done this year or in the past with New Orleans and Atlanta a couple years ago. Sometimes it works out; sometimes it doesn’t for one reason or another and that’s true on the other side of it. It has to be mutually beneficial. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t work, then I would prefer not to do it rather than do it and solve one problem but create two other ones down the line.

“Those things are good but they can be all outweighed by other things if it doesn’t work out right for you," Belichick said. “I wouldn’t do it just to do it. I would only do it if I thought it was beneficial to our team."

NFC South preseason story lines

August, 21, 2012
8/21/12
3:12
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It’s the third week of the preseason, which is significant. That’s because teams usually take the third game more seriously and play their starters into the second half.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some storylines for each of this week’s NFC South games:

Atlanta at Miami, Friday

Preseason results may not matter. But the Falcons have the NFL’s longest active preseason losing streak (seven games). Atlanta’s first-team offense and defense have looked good in the first two weeks. It’s the backups that have cost the Falcons victories. You can bet Mike Smith has been stressing the importance of “finishing."

Rookie tackle Lamar Holmes missed the first two preseason games with a broken toe. But Holmes is expected to play against the Dolphins and all eyes will be on him. With veteran Will Svitek out with a season-ending injury, Holmes becomes the next option after Sam Baker.

New England at Tampa Bay, Friday

Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano has said he’s patterned a lot of what he does after New England coach Bill Belichick. The two coaches are friendly and their teams will hold joint workouts in Tampa on Wednesday and Thursday.

I know coaches hold a lot back in the preseason and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I would like to see the Tampa Bay combination of Josh Freeman and Vincent Jackson at least click a little bit. Jackson has only one catch in the preseason.

Houston at New Orleans, Saturday

Against a Jacksonville team that didn’t have Maurice Jones-Drew and did have quarterback Blaine Gabbert last week, the New Orleans first defense didn’t look good. Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo still is teaching his system, but this is the last real audition for the Saints (who are playing their fourth preseason game) to grasp it.

With backup Chris Chamberlain lost for the season and starters Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne banged up, linebacker suddenly has become a hot topic for the Saints. Some young linebackers that came into camp with little apparent chance to make the roster, now have a shot to be contributors early in the season.

Carolina at New York Jets, Sunday

Coach Ron Rivera has hinted that linebacker Thomas Davis could make his preseason debut in this game. According to Carolina’s medical staff, Davis is attempting to become the first NFL player to come back from three torn ACLs.

Cam Newton and Tim Tebow will be in the same stadium. That alone is significant because of the hype they bring. But they also have history. Newton once was a backup to Tebow at the University of Florida.

Around the NFC South

August, 7, 2012
8/07/12
8:56
AM ET
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Let’s take a look at the Tuesday morning headlines from around the NFC South.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Just about everyone acknowledges this is a big year for quarterback Matt Ryan. Well, he’s off to a good start. In a joint workout with Tennessee on Monday, Ryan completed 16 of 17 passes.

Former Atlanta linebacker Keith Brooking has signed with Denver. Brooking had spent the last three seasons in Dallas, after playing high school and college football in Georgia and joined the Falcons in 1998. There had been some speculation Brooking could return to the Falcons after they lost Lofa Tatupu to injury, but I don’t think that ever was a consideration. The current regime didn’t feel Brooking fit the scheme before letting him leave for Dallas and there was no indication that thinking had changed.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Jeff Duncan writes that it would be best for all parties if New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma takes the reported settlement offer that may or may not have been put on the table by the NFL that would reduce his suspension from all season to eight games. Duncan might be right. This thing has gotten uglier and it sure looks like pride and ego have emerged on both sides. It might be time for a compromise that would settle this situation and allow the Saints and the NFL to move forward.

The Saints will have a padded joint practice with New England on Tuesday, before playing a preseason game with the Patriots. But that will come after New Orleans assistant head coach Joe Vitt and New England coach Bill Belichick reportedly will attend the funeral of Garrett Reid, son of Philadelphia coach Andy Reid.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Since coach Greg Schiano has been guarded with injury information, Stephen Holder’s list of the Bucs’ injuries is worth a look. Cornerback E.J. Biggers and receiver Arrelious Benn seem to be the two biggest concerns right now and it’s possible their absences could last into the regular season.

Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye said the new coaching staff treats players like it’s their first time playing football. Okoye meant that as a compliment. His point is that there is a strong emphasis on fundamentals. That’s nothing but a positive because we haven’t seen that in Tampa Bay in several years.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

With Jeremy Shockey still a free agent and not expected back in Carolina, Greg Olsen said he’s looking forward to getting the bulk of the receiving targets at tight end for Carolina. All indications are the Panthers are counting on Olsen to take on a much bigger role than he played last season when he had 45 catches. Fantasy players might want to take note.

Defensive end Charles Johnson said he believes coach Ron Rivera is asking him for more consistency. That became pretty apparent when Rivera said Johnson needed to do more than what’s required of him. This is a classic nudge of a coach nudging a player that’s been good, but has a chance to be great.

Bucs to practice with Patriots

July, 20, 2012
7/20/12
10:20
AM ET
The NFC South is going to get a strong dose of the New England Patriots this preseason.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers just announced they’ll host joint practices with the Patriots on Aug. 22 and 23. The Patriots and Bucs are scheduled to play a preseason game Aug. 24 at Raymond James Stadium.

There had been speculation about the possibility of joint practices since the release of the preseason schedule because New England coach Bill Belichick and Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano have a close relationship.

The New Orleans Saints also will have joint workouts with the Patriots before playing a preseason game at New England on Aug. 9.
There’s been some early concern among fans and media members about the tight ship new coach Greg Schiano is running in Tampa Bay.

That’s understandable because Schiano runs things in a much different fashion than former coach Raheem Morris. Besides that, there have been some college coaches (see Bobby Petrino) who jumped to the NFL and weren’t able to relate well to their players. There’s a fine line when you’re dealing with professional players, many of whom make millions of dollars.

But I think Schiano is walking that line quite nicely so far. Some may perceive him as a Bill Belichick clone, but I think Schiano also has a very human side.

We just got some more evidence of that. The Bucs will be holding a news conference next Tuesday with Eric LeGrand. He played for Schiano at Rutgers before suffering a spinal injury. Schiano has remained exceptionally close to LeGrand. After the NFL draft, the Bucs made LeGrand one of their signings as an undrafted free agent.

You can call that a symbolic gesture, but it’s turning out to be much more than that. Although LeGrand, who says he’s working hard to walk again, will never play for the Bucs, he’s going to be involved with them.

We don’t know yet if there will be any special announcements out of the news conference. But LeGrand hinted on his Twitter account that his Bucs jersey (No. 52) could go on sale soon.

Schiano may be strict with his players, but I think what he's doing with LeGrand sends a very positive message to every player on his roster. He's showing that if you play by his rules, he's always going to stay loyal to you and treat you well.

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