NFC South: Darius Butler

Carolina Panthers cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2012
8/31/12
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Click here for the complete list of Carolina Panthers roster moves.

Most significant move: The biggest move of the day wasn’t the release of a player. Instead, it was a trade. The Panthers will send a future draft pick to San Francisco for safety Colin Jones. I don’t think the Panthers are looking for Jones to come in and start at safety. This move was more about special teams -- and if you saw Pittsburgh’s Chris Rainey have a long punt return against them Thursday night, you saw why the Panthers still have concerns with the unit. Jones should help solve that problem. He was a regular on special teams for the 49ers and had eight special-teams tackles last season.

Onward and upward: Throughout training camp and the preseason games, there was a lot of buzz about undrafted rookie receiver Jared Green. Part of it came because he’s the son of Hall of Famer Darrell Green. But part of it came because the kid can play. The Panthers had a numbers crunch at receiver and wanted to keep guys like Kealoha Pilares and Joe Adams because they have invested draft picks in them in recent years, and both have abilities in the return game. But Green only helped himself with what he did in the preseason. Another team could take a shot and claim him off waivers. If not, Carolina almost certainly will try to get Green on the practice squad.

What’s next: As it stands, I’m not sure the Panthers are completely content with their cornerback situation. Chris Gamble and Captain Munnerlyn are the starters with rookie Josh Norman and second-year pro Josh Thomas as the backups. The Panthers really would like to move Munnerlyn inside and let him match up with slot receivers as the nickel back. Heading into camp, they though Norman might be able to step straight into a starting job. But his development was slowed a little when he missed some practice time with an injury. Brandon Hogan and Darius Butler also were guys the Panthers had high hopes for, but both got injured. I’m not sure the Panthers want to put too much on Norman's plate right away. They could look to bring in another cornerback. I could also see them at least checking to see what’s available as far as defensive-line depth. I know a lot of Carolina fans are shouting for the Panthers to do something at kicker after Justin Medlock missed two long field-goal attempts in the preseason finale. But all indications are the Panthers are planning to stick with Medlock.
Just a quick note to let you know we’re still waiting on official announcements from the New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and -- to a lesser degree -- the Carolina Panthers on what moves they have made to get down their rosters down to 53 players.

As of the moment, the Atlanta Falcons are the only NFC South team to announce their roster moves. I’ll bring you our cutdown analysis on the Saints and Buccaneers as soon as their moves are announced.

The Panthers did something I’ve never seen before. They made a partial announcement. The team said it has waived receiver Seyi Ajirotutu, cornerback Darius Butler, receiver Jared Green, linebacker David Nixon, defensive tackle Ogemdi Nwagbuo, running back Tauren Poole, offensive tackle Matt Reynolds, cornerback R.J. Stanford, defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen and linebacker Kion Wilson.

The Panthers still have to clear 12 more roster spots.

A few other items worth noting as we wait (and wait):

Joseph Person reports that Carolina wide receiver Armanti Edwards will make it through this round of cuts.

Stephen Holder reports that Tampa Bay receiver Tiquan Underwood has been told he’s being released.

Mike Triplett reports that it appears as if New Orleans undrafted running back Travaris Cadet will make the roster.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- In one sentence, Ron Rivera can take the 2011 Carolina Panthers and make them 9-7 instead of 6-10.

“I look at the Minnesota game, I look at the Detroit game and I look at the second Atlanta game," the Carolina coach said after practice on a recent morning.

No need to go back and look up those games. There’s one very common thread -- the Carolina defense crumbled when it mattered most. Despite hitting the jackpot drafting quarterback Cam Newton and suddenly having the most explosive offense in franchise history, the Panthers still finished third in the NFC South.

“It was hard for [defensive coordinator] Sean [McDermott], because he really had to pull back on what he likes to do, and disappointing for me because I wanted more from our defense," Rivera said. “But I think the toughest part of all is when you look back and see certain opportunities where if somebody just stepped up and made a play on the defensive side of the ball, it’s a totally different result to the ballgame."

But Rivera and the Panthers aren’t doing too much reflecting these days. Instead, Rivera’s looking at a fully stocked defense, and that’s reason enough for optimism. Jon Beason, who missed almost all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon, is back. So is defensive tackle Ron Edwards, who suffered a season-ending injury early in training camp. There is even hope that outside linebacker Thomas Davis, who once seemed to be on the verge of becoming a superstar, can fully recover from his third torn ACL and contribute at least as a role player.

The Panthers used their first-round pick on Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, who can play inside or outside, chase down running backs and rush the passer. There were other moves here and there for depth, and that’s why veteran left tackle Jordan Gross is looking across the line and seeing a defense that looks nothing like last season’s.

“I don’t think people truly realize how much we lost with the injuries last year," Gross said. “Missing Beas was a big deal as far as football, but it was an even bigger deal in the locker room. He’s the constant on that defense. He’s the guy that’s always chiming in on any team issue and getting on guys or encouraging guys. There really wasn’t a leader out there last year, once he was gone.

“Having Ron Edwards back also is huge, because he’s a big-body guy that we haven’t had in awhile, and that’s going to help the entire defense. Kuechly obviously is a guy that’s going to make some plays, and I think our pass rush has gotten better, just from having experience thrust upon them last year. Just practicing against them in camp, I can tell you that defense is going to be a whole lot better."

If Gross is right, Carolina fans could be very happy. This team hasn’t had a winning season since 2008. That could change with some improvement from the defense, because the world already knows Newton and the offense are going to score. If the defense can make just a few more of those plays Rivera talked about, the Panthers could be in the playoffs.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. The No. 2 cornerback spot. The Panthers have made it pretty clear they don’t want Captain Munnerlyn starting at cornerback. He brings athleticism and swagger but lacks the size to be an effective every-down cornerback. Ideally, the Panthers would like to slide Munnerlyn inside and let him line up with slot receivers in the nickel package.

That makes all sorts of sense, but there’s one big catch. At the moment, the Panthers aren’t sure they have anyone who can take Munnerlyn’s place as the starter. They got all excited about rookie Josh Norman in June workouts, and he still might end up in that role, but his fast track to a starting job stalled when he missed some time with an injury early in camp. There also was hope that second-year pro Brandon Hogan could claim the spot. But Hogan’s knee, which he injured in his final year of college, still doesn't allow him to stay on the practice field with anything approaching consistency.

Maybe Norman steps up in what’s left of the preseason. If not, the Panthers might give Darius Butler, who spent two seasons with New England before joining the Panthers last season, the starting job. Or maybe they still start Munnerlyn, but slide him inside in nickel situations and let Butler take his spot on the outside.

[+] EnlargeMike Tolbert
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonThe addition of Mike Tolbert, right, further crowds a backfield that includes DeAngelo Williams, left, and Jonathan Stewart.
2. The workload at running back. You can make a case that the Panthers underused running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart last season. So what did the Panthers do in the offseason? They added Mike Tolbert as a free agent from San Diego. The Panthers say Tolbert will be a fullback but also say he’ll get some time at tailback and will be asked to catch passes out of the backfield.

That sure makes it sound like the number of carries for Williams and Stewart, who each have had 1,000-yard seasons in the past, will be reduced even more. But I think people are missing the point. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski was riding the hot hand with Newton last season, and the Panthers frequently played from behind. When the coaching staff reflected on last season, I think it concluded that the running backs weren’t involved enough. Count on a conscious effort to get Williams and Stewart more carries.

It might look like Tolbert just complicates things. But players don’t call Chudzinski “The Mad Scientist" for no reason. They know he has big plans for this backfield. We could end up seeing all sorts of combinations of Williams, Stewart and Tolbert, and there could be all sorts of new plays. It sure beats the heck out of the old days in Carolina when variety in the backfield meant a draw play to Nick Goings.

3. The lineup at linebacker. When the Panthers drafted Kuechly, fans wondered what that meant for Beason. Kuechly played the middle in college, and the natural assumption was that he would do the same in the NFL. Kuechly might end up in the middle someday, but not while Beason is around.

Beason is a natural in the middle, and the Panthers aren’t going to move him. They’ll use Kuechly on the weak side. Davis’ comeback is a great story, but it almost certainly isn’t going to end with his return as a full-time starter. James Anderson will be the other starter. If the Panthers get anything out of Davis, it will be viewed as a bonus. At best, the Panthers plan to use Davis as a situational player in some nickel packages. They could resort to the 3-4 defense a little more often, but the 4-3 is going to remain their base defense.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeRyan Kalil
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneCenter Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer, declaring fans will be rewarded for their support with a "one hundred-percent, sterling silver victory -- the Lombardi Trophy."
One of the biggest signs of optimism I’ve ever seen came a few days before camp when center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer, promising a Super Bowl victory this season. Let’s turn to Kalil for an explanation.

“The idea behind the letter wasn’t to spark anything with the team, but really to let the fans in on how the culture was changing here," Kalil said. “I think in recent years, the culture has been too much of, 'If the Panthers win, great. And, if not, nobody expects much from us.’ I think Ron Rivera came in here and the mindset has just changed. There’s a sense of urgency, and a winning attitude that I haven’t seen since I’ve been here. That was the idea behind the letter -- just to get the fans excited, because we haven’t given them a whole lot to cheer about in recent years, and they’ve been very supportive of us. They deserve a better team, and we’re going to give them years of better things to come."

I’ve gotten to know Kalil pretty well, and he’s not the kind of guy who would pull a stunt like this just for show. Kalil was used to winning at USC and, if he was willing to go out on a limb like this, he must feel pretty confident that what he’s seen in the offseason program is about to translate into something special.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

There’s no question the presence of Kuechly and Beason will make the linebackers better, and there’s no doubt Edwards will help the run defense. But, outside of Charles Johnson, where’s the pass rush? There was almost no pass rush outside of Johnson last season, and it’s not like the Panthers made any dramatic moves in that area this offseason.

Maybe this is the year Greg Hardy and Eric Norwood finally reach their potential, but it’s not as if they’ve had major flashes in the past. There’s been a little buzz in camp about Thomas Keiser. I’m not sure he’s ready to be a full-time starter, but he could be a situational player. The Panthers might have to make more active use of the blitz. If they don’t, then a secondary that’s not exceptionally talented could be in for another long season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The special teams were almost as big a problem as the defense last season. That’s why the jobs at punter and kicker are completely wide open. There are no favorites here. The Panthers are simply going to go through the preseason and see whether Olindo Mare or Justin Medlock kicks better. If Medlock emerges, the Panthers will be happy to swallow their pride after giving Mare a big contract last season. They just want consistency. It’s the same at punter, where the Panthers let Jason Baker go after last season. They invested a draft pick in Brad Nortman but went out and signed veteran Nick Harris. They’re not indebted to either.

  • Brandon LaFell pretty much has locked up the No. 2 wide receiver job opposite Steve Smith. But there’s a logjam of receivers after that. David Gettis, Louis Murphy and Seyi Ajirotutu seem to be competing for the No. 3 spot. But they might not all make the team. The Panthers also are high on younger receivers Kealoha Pilares, Joe Adams and Armanti Edwards, each of whom can contribute in the return game. Edwards, whom the Panthers drafted as a project in 2010, has shown some promise in camp but probably isn’t going to make the roster ahead of Adams and Pilares.

  • There was a lot of talk about competition at right tackle and left guard entering camp. But those competitions didn’t turn into much. The Panthers already were locked in on Byron Bell as their right tackle after he played so well there last season. They also seem fully prepared to go with rookie Amini Silatolu at left guard. Veterans Mike Pollak and Bruce Campbell were brought in, but the Panthers are viewing them as quality backups.

  • There’s been a buzz around camp about how well third-year quarterback Jimmy Clausen has played. Sad part is, it doesn’t really matter. Newton’s set as the franchise quarterback for at least the next decade, and Chudzinski has strong ties to veteran backup Derek Anderson. Clausen is stuck at No. 3. The Panthers might as well try to showcase him in the preseason games. If he really is playing that well, someone might be willing to trade a draft pick for him.

  • The Panthers brought in Haruki Nakamura as an alternative to Sherrod Martin at safety. The thinking was Nakamura, who was Ed Reed’s backup in Baltimore, could end up beating Martin out. As it turns out, the acquisition seems to have ignited a fire under Martin. He’s having a nice training camp, and it looks like he’ll hold onto the starting job if he can continue playing well through the preseason.
  • The Panthers aren't the slightest bit worried about Newton's running into "the sophomore slump." There is good reason for that. Newton had one of the best statistical seasons ever by a quarterback, and he did that coming out of a lockout during which he wasn't able to spend any offseason time with his coaches. Newton has had an entire offseason this year, and all indications are he spent as much time around the facility as possible. The Panthers fully believe Newton didn't even come close to hitting his full potential last season.
All around the NFC South this summer, we’ve been hearing a lot about nickelbacks.

It seems like all four teams are putting more emphasis on a position that has grown in importance as passing around the league has increased in recent years. Relatively speaking, the NFC South didn’t use a lot of nickel packages last season. The Falcons ranked 11th in the league, using an extra defensive back on 55.8 percent of their defensive plays last season. The Saints (50 percent) were No. 18. The Buccaneers were No. 23 at 45.9 percent and the Panthers came in at No. 24 at 45.2 percent.

But I suspect the numbers will jump for all NFC South teams. When the Falcons went out and traded for Asante Samuel, they repeatedly talked about the importance of having three starting-caliber cornerbacks. They have that now with Samuel, Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes. We still don’t know if Samuel or Robinson will start, but the Falcons have made it pretty clear that, in nickel situations, Robinson will be the guy moving inside and lining up against slot receivers.

The Saints also have worked to beef up their cornerback situation, although it’s been a gradual process over the past couple of years. They still have starter Jabari Greer, but let Tracy Porter leave as a free agent. The Saints were well prepared for that. They used a first-round pick on Patrick Robinson in 2010 and a third-round pick on Johnny Patrick last year. The plan is for Robinson, who often was used as the nickel back last year, to move permanently to the starting lineup with Patrick taking over as the nickel.

The Buccaneers have shuffled their secondary with a strong eye on what they’ll do in nickel situations. They signed cornerback Eric Wright as a free agent and the plan is to start him opposite Aqib Talib. Wright’s arrival allowed the Buccaneers to move veteran cornerback Ronde Barber to free safety, where he’ll line up with rookie strong safety Mark Barron. But it appears as if the Bucs will slide Barber inside against slot receivers in the nickel package and replace him with Ahmad Black, Larry Asante or Cody Grimm. I think you’ll see the Bucs use the nickel package often because they want to take advantage of Barber’s experience.

I think you’ll see Carolina’s use of the nickel move toward 50 percent, or above it. The Panthers quietly have been hoping that a young cornerback will rise up and allow them to move Captain Munnerlyn inside to the nickel spot. Munnerlyn doesn’t have great size, but wouldn’t be at as much of a disadvantage if he’s matched up with slot receivers. Rookie Josh Norman appeared to have a shot to start with a strong showing in the June minicamp. But Norman has been banged up early in camp. The Panthers are hoping second-year pro Brandon Hogan can put a knee injury fully behind him and challenge for a starting spot, but that hasn’t happened yet. With Norman and Hogan missing camp time, Darius Butler has been getting a lot of work and making a good impression. Unless Norman and Hogan can get healthy and show they’re ready to contribute, Butler could end up playing a key role in Carolina’s secondary.

Checking Panthers' CB situation

August, 6, 2012
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SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- I had hoped to bring you some observations from the Carolina Panthers’ Monday night practice.

But that’s not going to happen. The Panthers just cut practice way short. They were on the field for a little more than 20 minutes, when heavy rain and some thunder in the distance forced them off the field. It’s still unclear if the Panthers will resume their practice at the Wofford College gymnasium. But, even if they do, that session is likely to be similar to a walk-through session and that will not be open to the public.

Given the circumstances, I’ve got to do a little balancing act here. Most of the information I’ve gathered already will be used in Carolina’s Camp Confidential, which is scheduled to run Sunday, but I want to give you something to help pass the time.

So let’s talk about Carolina’s cornerback situation beyond veteran starter Chris Gamble. Captain Munnerlyn is the other incumbent starter, but there had been some hope coming into camp that second-year pro Brandon Hogan or rookie Josh Norman could claim a starting job and allow Munnerlyn to become the nickel back.

But Hogan and Norman each have missed practice time with injuries. So how does that leave the Panthers at cornerback? Not without hope.

“There’s a couple of guys that have really flashed and have taken advantage of the opportunity of having other guys out,’’ coach Ron Rivera said Monday morning. “We’ve had two guys down that we think are good corners, young corners that are developing in Brandon and Josh. And we’ve had guys that have really truly stepped up. Darius Butler stepped up. Josh Thomas has stepped up. R.J. Stanford has stepped up. It’s not like we don’t have guys there. As guys go through this and are rehabbing, other guys have stepped up. That’s all you can do. You get your opportunities, you’ve got to step up and take advantage of those opportunities.’’

Here’s the translation: The Panthers aren’t giving up on the idea of Hogan or Norman playing significant roles in the regular season. Of course, much of that depends on if Hogan and Norman are healthy enough to show what they can do in preseason games. Thomas and Stafford are guys that could challenge for one of the final roster spots or could end up on the practice squad.

Just from the vibe I got from various people with the Panthers on Monday, Butler is the guy we should be keeping an eye on right now. They say, of all the guys that have stepped up, Butler has stepped up the most.

Plus, Butler has a fair amount of experience. He spent 2009 and ’10 with the New England Patriots and started eight games. Butler joined the Panthers last season and started six games.

Even if Butler, Hogan or Norman doesn’t show enough to win the starting job, the hope is that one of them can step up enough to earn significant playing time. The Panthers aren’t opposed to a scenario in which Munnerlyn still would start and one of the other corners would come in and take his spot in nickel situations. In that scenario, Munnerlyn then would slide inside where he would line up against slot receivers.
As we wait for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to hire assistant coaches, get blocked from interviewing potential assistants or anything else of note to happen during a very quiet time in the NFC South, let’s look at some more playing-time figures from the 2011 season.

We showed you the numbers on linebackers earlier Tuesday and I’ve been trying to roll out one position group a day since last week. But we’re going to go ahead and go with two in a day. We’re going to show you the playing time for the NFC South cornerbacks.

Lots of people like to criticize Atlanta’s Dunta Robinson. That’s understandable to some degree because Robinson signed a huge free-agent contract prior to the 2010 season, but has produced only three interceptions since joining the Falcons.

But I haven’t seen Robinson giving up a lot of big plays. In fact, I think he’s done a nice job overall in coverage. Apparently, Atlanta’s coaching staff agrees.

Robinson was on the field for 967 of Atlanta’s 996 defensive plays (97.1 percent). That percentage ranked Robinson tops in the NFC South and No. 11 in the NFL. Tennessee’s Cortland Finnegan was the NFL’s only cornerback to play 100 percent of his team’s defensive snaps.

New Orleans’ Jabari Greer, who I think is easily the division’s best cornerback, was next on the list. Greer was on the field for 93.3 percent of New Orleans’ defensive plays and ranked No. 19 in the NFL.

The other NFC South cornerback of note high on the list was Tampa Bay’s Ronde Barber. His durability never has been a question. Even at age 36, Barber took part in 92.3 percent of Tampa Bay’s defensive snaps to rank No. 21 in the league.

Carolina’s Chris Gamble (89.3 percent) was the only other NFC South cornerback to play more than 80 percent of his team’s defensive snaps.

Here’s a look at how much playing time some other NFC South cornerbacks had in 2011:

Final injury report on Bucs, Panthers

December, 23, 2011
12/23/11
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers have issued their final injury reports for Saturday’s game.

Carolina went ahead and put cornerback Captain Munnerlyn on injured reserve. The Panthers promoted Jonathan Nelson from the practice squad. Nelson and young defensive backs Brandon Hogan and Darius Butler could get plenty of playing time because safety Charles Godfrey also is listed as doubtful.

The Bucs are listing defensive end Michael Bennett (toe), linebacker Geno Hayes (knee), defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth (knee), linebacker Adam Hayward (foot), defensive tackle Brian Price (ankle) and receiver Sammie Stroughter (knee) as questionable. But the encouraging thing is all of those players practiced Friday.

Checking injuries for Bucs, Panthers

December, 21, 2011
12/21/11
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers have issued injury reports for Saturday’s game. The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons don’t play until Monday night, so they don’t have to file reports with the league yet.

Let’s take a look at the injuries of note for the Buccaneers and Panthers. Tampa Bay receiver Arrelious Benn, who missed the last game with a concussion, practiced on a full basis Wednesday. Defensive end Michael Bennett (toe), defensive tackle Brian Price (ankle) and linebacker Geno Hayes (knee) were held out of practice. Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth (knee) also sat out, but the Bucs frequently give the veteran a day or two of rest during the week.

For Carolina, defensive back Darius Butler, who also is coming back from a concussion, participated fully in practice. But several big names were held out of practice. Left tackle Jordan Gross (ankle) and defensive end Charles Johnson (knee) did not practice. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (ankle) and safety Charles Godfrey (shoulder) also were held out of practice.

Around the NFC South

December, 21, 2011
12/21/11
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Time for a look at the top headlines from around the NFC South.

Mike Triplett notes that each of the last four games between the Saints and Falcons has been decided by three points. That’s why this has become the NFC South’s best rivalry. In fact, I think you could make a case that this has become one of the league’s best rivalries.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera said the Panthers are out to win their final two games and aren’t playing for draft position. That’s exactly the way the Panthers should be approaching this. They’ve got a chance to finish this season with some positive momentum that can carry over to next year. Just think back to John Fox’s first season (2002). That Carolina team finished strong and the Panthers were in the Super Bowl the next season.

Carolina’s defensive backfield is very banged-up. There is some hope that Charles Godfrey and Darius Butler can play Sunday against Tampa Bay, but the outlook isn’t as bright on starting cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.

Roy Cummings explores the future of Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib, who will finish the season on injured reserve. Talib remains under contract to the Buccaneers through 2012, but he’s facing trial on an assault charge in March. That could lead to jail time or a suspension by the NFL. Even if Talib is cleared of the charge, there’s no guarantee he’ll be back with the Bucs. Coach Raheem Morris has been a big supporter of Talib. But Morris is on the hot seat with the Bucs on a losing streak. If a new coach comes in, he might not want Talib.

Although Atlanta defensive end Ray Edwards has come on lately, he told Jeff Schultz he’s still not at full strength after offseason knee surgery.

Lots of fans were curious about why general manager Mark Dominik was seen wearing a headset during Saturday night’s game with Dallas. Stephen Holder has the answer. The Bucs say Dominik wears the headset to keep in contact with Morris about injuries and replay challenges.

Checking the injuries that matter most

December, 16, 2011
12/16/11
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The Friday injury reports are out for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, so let’s take a look at the most significant injuries around the division.

Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib (hamstring) is listed as probable and coach Raheem Morris has said he expects Talib to be matched up with Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant. Receiver Arrelious Benn (concussion) has been ruled out and fellow receiver Sammie Stroughter (knee) is questionable. That probably means more playing time for Preston Parker and Dezmon Briscoe. Defensive tackle Brian Price (ankle) is questionable, but Price was able to practice on a limited basis Thursday and Friday.

Carolina has a potentially difficult situation at cornerback. Darius Butler (concussion) has been declared out. Starting cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (ankle) is questionable. Left tackle Jordan Gross (ankle) is questionable, but was able to practice on a limited basis Friday.

The Saints have declared running back Mark Ingram (turf toe) out for Sunday’s game at the Minnesota Vikings. That means Chris Ivory likely will be active and used in rotation with Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas. Linebacker Jonathan Casillas (knee) also has been ruled out.

Julio Jones provides explosiveness

December, 11, 2011
12/11/11
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Julio JonesAP Photo/Bob LeveroneJulio Jones' two fourth-quarter TDs were the difference as Atlanta rallied to beat Carolina on Sunday.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones has a small tattoo on his upper back that says “Chosen 1’’.

Now, we know why.

What Jones did in Sunday’s 31-23 victory against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium gave us the most conclusive evidence yet that the Falcons made the right choice back in April.

In a move that was daring but controversial, the Falcons traded up 21 spots to take the wide receiver from the University of Alabama. The explanation at the time was the Falcons thought Jones could make the Falcons’ offense much more explosive.

Jones and the Atlanta offense exploded in the second half Sunday, after trailing 23-7 at halftime. Jones caught a 17-yard touchdown pass with 12 minutes, 42 seconds left in the fourth quarter to put the Falcons ahead 24-23, their first lead since since the first quarter.

He followed that with a 75-yard touchdown catch with 4:17 remaining and finished with three catches for 104 yards.

“I think Julio showed the skill set we all envisioned,’’ Falcons coach Mike Smith said.

We had seen that skill set in bits and pieces from the start of the season. Jones had three 100-yard receiving games before Sunday. But he also missed some time with a hamstring injury and was coming off his worst game. That was in a loss to Houston last week, in which Jones was responsible for two costly penalties and had two drops, including one in the end zone on the game’s final play.

Jones’ first half against the Panthers wasn’t great either, but then again, the same thing can be said about all of the Falcons. Jones had at least one first-half drop as the Falcons (8-5) fell behind the Panthers (4-9), who might have played their best half of football of the season in the first two quarters.

“We played with resiliency and character,’’ Smith said.

Smith was talking about his entire team, and that’s very accurate. The comeback was the fourth-biggest in franchise history. But there might not have been a player who showed more resiliency and character than Jones.

Smith said the rookie had a "bounce-back game'' and that says a lot about Jones. We’ve seen rookies go into funks after having games like the one Jones did in Houston. His every move has been under scrutiny since the day the Falcons drafted him. But Jones was under more scrutiny than ever after what happened in Houston, and Sunday’s first half was clearing the way for even more criticism.

Had the Falcons not rallied, their playoff chances would have taken a hit. Had Jones not rallied, the skeptics would have been lighting up general manager Thomas Dimitroff for making the huge trade on draft day.

But Jones and the Falcons did rally. The Falcons now have secured their fourth straight non-losing season, and this was a team that never had back-to-back winning seasons until 2009. Jones rallied and was perhaps the biggest hero of the game, although Carolina’s second-half defense and two second-half interceptions by Cam Newton definitely played a big role.

Jones said he didn’t even notice the scrutiny after the Houston game, and he wasn’t about to let himself get down after a tough first half against the Panthers.

“I can only control what happens on the field,’’ Jones said. “I’m here for my teammates. Everything else is outside of the organization. I really don’t hear it or pay attention to it. I try to help my teammates.’’

Jones helped his teammates tremendously, and also got an assist from a fellow rookie. That was running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who caught a 31-yard touchdown pass with 8:55 left in the third quarter to cut Carolina’s lead to 23-17.

Suddenly, the Falcons are getting those explosive plays they talked so much about in the offseason, but weren’t showing in the early part of the season.

“We’ve certainly made strides in that department,’’ quarterback Matt Ryan said. “We’ve made plays that we wanted to make. I think the addition of those two rookies has certainly helped in that respect.’’

Ryan has been a master of the fourth-quarter comeback, but now he’s getting even more dependable weapons to work with. Sunday was the 14th fourth-quarter comeback (16th if you count overtime games that he's won after trailing in the fourth quarter) of Ryan’s career, and he finished the day completing 22 of 38 passes for 320 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.

We’ve known for a long time that Ryan is capable of bouncing back. But we found out Sunday that Jones has that same ability.

“I think it’s extremely impressive,’’ Ryan said. “If you look at the day and the two weeks he’s had, he’s made some huge plays for us and he’s made some plays where I’m sure he would have liked to have done better. That’s him maturing and understanding what the NFL is all about. There are going to be times when you don’t make the plays you want to make, and it’s all about how you respond to those types of situations. He did a great job for us.’’

That’s impressive for a rookie or really any player.

“But that doesn’t surprise me,’’ Ryan said. “That’s been his deal the entire year. He’s worked really hard. He’s been into it and done everything you could ask for from a rookie.’’

What Jones did on his second touchdown was beyond what you’d expect from any rookie. He blew by Carolina defensive back Darius Butler and outraced him to the end zone to put the game away.

Jones said his big day came because the coaches never lost faith in him.

“Matt had confidence in me,’’ Jones said. “The coaches kept calling plays for me. They kept giving me the ball and that gave me the opportunity to bounce back and go out there and make plays for the team.’’

And Jones never lost faith in himself.

What it comes down to is that Jones firmly showed why he was the Chosen One for the Falcons on draft day.

Checking the injuries that matter most

September, 30, 2011
9/30/11
4:33
PM ET
The Friday injury reports are out for the Falcons, Saints and Panthers. The Buccaneers don’t have to put out statuses yet because they don’t play until Monday night. So let’s take a look at the most significant injuries for Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina.

The Falcons are listing Roddy White (thigh) as questionable. This is one to keep an eye on. If White can’t play against the Seahawks, the Falcons are going to have to juggle Harry Douglas, Kerry Meier and Eric Weems opposite Julio Jones. As expected, the Falcons also declared defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (knee), linebacker Stephen Nicholas (calf) and running back Jason Snelling (concussion) out for Sunday’s game.

The Panthers listed cornerback Chris Gamble (concussion) as doubtful. Coach Ron Rivera said he expects Darius Butler to take Gamble’s place in the starting lineup. Right tackle Jeff Otah (back) is listed as questionable, but has said he expects to play.

The Saints have the NFC South’s longest and most significant injury list. The team said tight end David Thomas, linebacker Will Herring, right tackle Zach Strief, center Olin Kreutz and linebacker Martez Wilson will be out for Sunday’s game with Jacksonville. Charles Brown is expected to start in Strief’s place and Brian De La Puente is expected to start at center. The Saints also are listing linebacker Jonathan Vilma and receiver Marques Colston as questionable.

Checking the injuries that matter most

September, 29, 2011
9/29/11
5:21
PM ET
New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma returned to practice for the first time since injuring his knee more than a week ago. Vilma practiced on a limited basis, but it was an encouraging sign that the Saints may have their defensive leader back for Sunday’s game at Jacksonville. The news wasn't nearly as good on some other key injuries. Right tackle Zach Strief (knee), center Olin Kreutz (knee) and tight end David Thomas (concussion) all did not practice. That means it’s likely Charles Brown will start at right tackle and Brian de la Puente at center.

Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White missed his second straight day of practice with a thigh injury. This one bears watching. White is one of those guys who sometimes get a day off on Wednesdays. But when he sits out practice two days in a row, you know he’s hurt. If he can’t go against Seattle, the Falcons would have to give more playing time to Harry Douglas, Eric Weems and Kerry Meier. Linebacker Stephen Nicholas (calf) and running back Jason Snelling (concussion) also sat out for the second straight day. The only encouraging development was that cornerback Kelvin Hayden (hamstring) returned to practice on a limited basis.

Carolina cornerback Chris Gamble missed another day of practice with a concussion. If he’s not cleared to play, the Panthers likely would start either R.J. Stanford or Darius Butler.

Bucs linebacker Geno Hayes has been cleared to play this week after suffering a concussion last week. Linebacker Quincy Black, who missed last week with an ankle injury, returned to practice.

Around the NFC South

September, 8, 2011
9/08/11
10:17
AM ET
APPLETON, Wisc. – We’ll have lots more on the New Orleans Saints throughout the day as they get ready for their game with the Green Bay Packers. But, first, let’s take a look at what’s going on across the rest of the NFC South.

Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, one of the NFC South’s more confident players, said he’s not ready to relinquish his starting spot to newcomer Darius Butler. The plan is for Munnerlyn to start the opener and Butler will be used in nickel packages. But the signing of Butler could be an indication the Panthers are seeking an upgrade on Munnerlyn, who is limited by the fact he’s 5-foot-8. Butler was a second-round pick by the Patriots and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds. But don’t automatically assume Butler’s going to take over the starting job. Munnerlyn’s a competitor and he’s not going to give up the job without a fight.

Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton recently got a surprise phone call. It came from Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick, who offered Newton some advice on adapting to life in the NFL.

Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay tweeted that quarterback Peyton Manning is out for “awhile’’. You can bet the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are keeping a close eye on this one. The Bucs host the Colts in Week 4 in a Monday Night Football game. Not having Manning on the field might help the Tampa Bay defense, but it wouldn’t help at the box office, where the Bucs are struggling to sell out games.

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan said he believes second-year center Joe Hawley is ready to step in for injured veteran Todd McClure.

Hitting the NFC South links

September, 7, 2011
9/07/11
8:54
AM ET
Time for a morning look at the top headlines around the NFC South.

Bradley Handwerger writes that time in the spotlight at Alabama should help New Orleans rookie running back Mark Ingram be ready for Thursday night’s opener at Green Bay.

Mike Triplett writes that New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams welcomed his players back from the lockout with a video of last season’s playoff loss to Seattle. That game’s been mentioned more than a few times this season. Williams said he coaches with a chip on his shoulder and he wants his defense to play that way.

Former coach Jimmy Johnson said the NFC South is a two-team race between the Saints and Falcons, but didn’t pick a winner. Johnson also said he doesn’t expect the Bucs to match last year’s 10-win season.

Chris Vivlamore has a nice feature on how Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant handles pressure. This veteran has gone through some ups and downs, but he’s got his career on firm footing in Atlanta and has become the best kicker in the NFC South.

One of the storylines as the Buccaneers get ready to host Detroit on Sunday is how the Lions might have kept Tampa Bay out of the playoffs with a late-season win last year. But Eric Horchy writes that quarterback Josh Freeman said the team can’t afford to dwell on that game. That’s true, but I suspect coach Raheem Morris might have brought it up as motivation a few times.

The Bucs were without top cornerback Aqib Talib, who sat out that Detroit game with an injury. With Talib out, Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson had 10 catches for 152 yards. Although Talib sat out all four preseason games with a hamstring injury, he said he’s ready for Sunday and looking forward to matching up with Johnson.

The Panthers claimed cornerback Darius Butler off waivers from the Patriots. Carolina’s been looking for help at cornerback throughout the preseason. Butler’s worth a shot. He was a second-round pick in 2009 and briefly was a starter.

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