NFC South: Hue Jackson

When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla. TV: CBS

At 7-3-1, the Cincinnati Bengals lead the AFC North. Barely.

Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore each are 7-4. The Bengals are in the thick of a playoff race in what might be the league's toughest division.

On Sunday, the Bengals will play another playoff contender. Seriously, the 2-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in the playoff hunt in the shockingly weak NFC South. The Bucs are only two games behind Atlanta and New Orleans in the win column.

ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas preview Sunday’s matchup:

Harvey: Pat, this is so weird to me: The Bucs, with two wins, still are technically in the NFC South playoff hunt because the division is so bad. I know recently you said that the team needed to start thinking about next year, but what do you sense the players’ approach is about still possibly trying to sneak into the postseason?

Yasinskas: Even the Bucs are amazed that they technically still are in the division race. Coach Lovie Smith has made it clear the Bucs are playing to win and aren't planning to look at young players to get ready for next season. I think that really is the only approach Smith can take. His team is only two games off the division lead, so the Bucs might as well play to win.

The Bengals lost coordinators Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer to head-coaching jobs in the offseason, but it doesn't seem as if they've missed a beat. How have they adapted to the changes?

Harvey: Well, Pat, I wouldn't quite say the haven't "missed a beat." You and the Buccaneers just happen to be getting ready to see them at the right time. Three weeks ago at home on a Thursday night against the Browns, the offense and the defense looked as if they had just been handed Hue Jackson's and Paul Guenther's new schemes about an hour before kickoff. They didn't run much in that game; they didn't pass well; and they didn't stop the run at all. In fact, until two weeks ago, the Bengals had allowed seven straight 100-yard rushing performances by opposing offenses. They ranked 31st in rush defense coming out of the 24-3 loss to the Browns. They have since turned it around with two 75-yards-and-under performances to rank 27th. Still not great, but progress.

Overall, though, the Bengals have adapted well to the changes at coordinator. Through the first three games, they looked unstoppable on both sides of the ball and were 3-0. Injuries later handcuffed them, with key players Vontaze Burfict, A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard and Andre Smith among those occasionally hurt. Now that they’re healthier, the Bengals have shown at New Orleans and Houston the past two weeks that they have a full grasp of Jackson's and Guenther's systems.

It's clear Josh McCown wears his heart on his sleeve. And although there were no tears after his homecoming loss in Chicago on Sunday, how much could that loss in particular weigh on him entering this week?

Yasinskas: Knowing McCown, he'll use what happened in Chicago as a motivating factor. The Chicago game was extra important to McCown because of his past there, but he wound up playing perhaps his worst game of the year. But I can't see McCown pouting about it. He's a pro's pro, and he'll be trying hard to bounce back from a bad game.

The Bengals have been running the ball especially well. Why have they been so successful on the ground?

Harvey: They are, in a word, "stubborn." That was the word Jackson used earlier this season after his backs carried the ball 12 times in a 27-0 loss at Indianapolis (another game neither side showed up for). He indicated then that, although the score eventually dictated the Bengals needed to pass to get back into that game, he still thought, in retrospect, that he abandoned the run way too soon. What we've seen in three of the past four games is a stubbornness when it comes to running the ball.

Since their 12-carry day at Indy, the Bengals have averaged 31.8 rushes per game. Whether down by a few or ahead in a close contest, the Bengals have made more of a concerted effort to keep feeding their backs. And those backs, namely rookie Jeremy Hill, have rewarded them. When Bernard missed three straight games recently, Hill rushed for 361 yards in his place, going for more than 150 yards in two games. Now both backs are healthy again, and there is clearly a renewed focus on running the ball. In Sunday's win at Houston, they rushed 43 times.

I see Michael Johnson's production is down in Tampa Bay this year. He hasn't much looked like a defensive end worth $9 million a year. What has led to his poor play, and is there still confidence that he could be the team's future defensive cornerstone?

Yasinskas: Johnson's lack of production is a bit misleading. He has been injured virtually all season. He played through an ankle injury early on and is playing with a broken hand right now. That has limited his playing time. But Johnson is getting close to being fully healthy, and the Bucs remain optimistic about his future.

Speaking of Johnson, who has taken his place at defensive end, and how has that worked out for the Bengals?

Harvey: Johnson's replacement, so to speak, has been Carlos Dunlap, a fifth-year player who helped Johnson bookend the defensive line the past four seasons. Dunlap was already a solid player, but he has emerged as the line's star now that Johnson is gone. It isn't just on the field that Dunlap has replicated his former teammate -- he's closing in on potential career highs in tackles (48 currently) and sacks (5.5 currently) -- he has done it off the field, too. In Cincinnati, the Carlos Dunlap Foundation has become the most recognized of the team's player charities, and he has taken a more active role in working with underprivileged children and treating them to experiences such as a Cincinnati Reds game. As you well know, Pat, Johnson remains quite active in the community in his hometown of Selma, Alabama.

Dunlap isn't doing it all himself, though. Wallace Gilberry also has had an impactful year in the Bengals’ pass rush, as has the Bengals' most-tenured player, veteran Robert Geathers, who missed all but two games last year because of an injury.

Cam Newton endorses Shula promotion

February, 1, 2013
2/01/13
3:10
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NEW ORLEANS -- The recent promotion of Mike Shula from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator by the Carolina Panthers got its most important endorsement Friday.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Pat Yasinskas/ESPN.comPanthers QB Cam Newton says he's excited to see what wrinkles Mike Shula will bring to the offense.
“I don’t think there was a better person that could come in and take over,’’ quarterback Cam Newton said Friday after a Gatorade Sports Science Institute news conference to talk about nutrition. “I’m excited about taking the next steps in the process with him.’’

Don’t underestimate the importance of Newton’s opinion on Shula. It might have had a lot to do with the promotion after Rob Chudzinski left to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

Newton, after all, is the franchise in Carolina. Coach Ron Ron Rivera ultimately made the decision on the hire. But I have little doubt that Newton’s thoughts mattered.

I asked Newton if he and Rivera talked during a process, during which Hue Jackson and Pat Shurmur also were interviewed. Newton said he and Rivera chatted and shared thoughts.

Newton said he and Shula have talked multiple times since the promotion.

“I believe it will be similar (to Chudzinski’s scheme), but you always have to evolve,’’ Newton said. “You can’t stay the same. If you do, you’re going to get schemed up. I’m looking forward to (Shula’s) twist on the offense. I’m as curious as everyone else to see what we’re going to be as far as an identity.’’
In the end, the Carolina Panthers wound up selecting the right offensive coordinator.

Joseph Person reports that quarterbacks coach Mike Shula has been promoted to fill the offensive coordinator spot that came open when Rob Chudzinski was hired as head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

The Panthers interviewed Pat Shurmur and Hue Jackson from the outside. But staying inside was the smartest thing they could have done.

Shula knows the Chudzinski offense and isn’t likely to stray from it. He also has a good relationship with quarterback Cam Newton, and that might be the most important dynamic, because Newton is the franchise.

I know Shula has his detractors from his days as a head coach at the University of Alabama and as offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay. But those situations were dramatically different, and Shula was pretty much destined to fail.

At Alabama, he came into a program that was dealing with NCAA issues and still reeling from the Mike Price fiasco. In Tampa Bay, Shula was running the conservative offense that coach Tony Dungy demanded, and he didn’t have much talent to work with.

Getting this job is Shula’s first legitimate chance to succeed. He has a talented quarterback in Newton, an offensive line anchored by Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross, a deep backfield, a top receiver in Steve Smith, and a solid tight end in Greg Olsen.

This time, Shula’s hands aren’t tied. This time, he has a chance to succeed.

Around the NFC South

January, 18, 2013
1/18/13
9:37
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Time for a look at the top Friday morning headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Tight end Tony Gonzalez has been saying for months that he’s 95-percent certain he’ll retire after this season. He admitted that figure went up a couple of percentage points after getting the first playoff victory of his career. The implication is that Gonzalez would walk away if the Falcons win the Super Bowl, because he’d get a chance to go out on top. But Gonzalez still is playing at such a high level that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him return for another year.

San Francisco’s Aldon Smith had a franchise-record 19.5 sacks this season. But he hasn’t produced a sack in the past four games. Still, the Falcons have to be aware of where he is on every play.

Mayor Kasim Reed continues to show his support for a new stadium for the Falcons.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Joseph Person reports the Panthers will choose their new offensive coordinator from a list of three finalists -- Pat Shurmur, Hue Jackson and Mike Shula. Nothing against Jackson or Shurmur, but I think Shula is the logical choice. He’s been the team’s quarterbacks coach the past two seasons. He knows the system installed by Rob Chudzinski, and he has a close relationship with quarterback Cam Newton.

Erik Spangberg has some details on the proposed deal between the Panthers and the City of Charlotte for funding for renovations for Bank of America Stadium. One thing that jumps out is that part of the deal would require the Panthers to make a commitment to stay in Charlotte for 10 years. But it would take the city 15 years to pay off the $125 million the Panthers are looking for.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Mike Triplett writes that there have been no winners and no losers in the Saints’ bounty scandal. He’s right. The latest, and perhaps final, example of that came Thursday when a federal judge dismissed linebacker Jonathan Vilma’s defamation lawsuit against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Nobody won there either. Vilma lost his suit, but the judge had some harsh words for Goodell’s handling of the bounty case.

Jeff Duncan has a fine column on former New Orleans player Steve Gleason, who is battling ALS. But Gleason continues to fight to help others with the disease. His latest effort is to open a living facility for those with the disease.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Ira Kaufman has a feature on how cornerback Aqib Talib has fared well since his trade to New England. I know a lot of Tampa Bay fans think it was a mistake to trade away the team’s best cornerback at midseason, and the statistics of Tampa Bay’s pass defense certainly support that argument. But I still think the Bucs made the right move in unloading a player who had given them nothing but trouble and would have walked away as a free agent in March. At least the Bucs got a fourth-round draft pick for Talib.

NFC South afternoon update

January, 15, 2013
1/15/13
5:53
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Time for an afternoon run through some odds and ends from all around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Former NFL running back and current broadcaster Marshall Faulk says the pressure is only going to intensify for the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. I get the point that pressure increases with each level of the postseason. But I also think that, in some ways, just getting a playoff victory against Seattle eased the pressure on the Falcons. At least they don’t have to spend the week talking about past playoff woes.

D. Orlando Ledbetter takes a look at the matchup between Atlanta’s passing offense and San Francisco’s pass defense. I give the nod to the Falcons here. It’s tough to beat a receiver tandem of Roddy White and Julio Jones and we don’t even need to start talking about the other options in the passing game.

Here’s a photo of the loudest decibel level recorded during the playoff win against Seattle. The Falcons are hoping the Georgia Dome crowd can be even louder during the NFC Championship Game.

The Falcons have announced they’ve promoted Marvin Allen to national scout. He has spent the past four years as the team’s scout for the Eastern region.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Charlotte City Council voted in favor of giving the Panthers $125 million to help renovate Bank of America Stadium. The facility, which opened in 1996, was built without any public funding.

Joseph Person reports that the Panthers have interviewed veteran special teams coach Bobby April. The team also is looking for an offensive coordinator and has interviewed Hue Jackson and Pat Shurmur.

Quarterback Cam Newton is enrolled at Auburn this semester and is working toward a degree in sociology.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

New Orleans is getting ready to host the Super Bowl and the fact that it’s possible the Falcons could be coming to town has to bother Saints’ fans. But Mike Triplett points out that tight end Tony Gonzalez is one Atlanta player worth rooting for. Gonzalez is the best tight end in history, a model citizen and it’s possible the Super Bowl could be the final game of his spectacular career.

Speaking of the Super Bowl, here’s a picture of the game tickets. It’s not hard to spot a New Orleans theme.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

General manager Mark Dominik is a finalist for the USAA “Salute to Service’’ award. In a city with a large military presence, Dominik initiated a community outreach program for active and retired military personnel.

Around the NFC South

January, 12, 2013
1/12/13
8:47
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Let's take a look at some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said in this radio interview that he doesn’t believe the team’s recent playoff struggles bring added pressure. Instead, Weatherspoon said the Falcons will use what happened in past playoff games as motivation.

ESPN Stats & Information has four statistical reasons why Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan is ready to get his first playoff victory.

Jeff Schultz writes that the Falcons need to ride their offense if they’re going to win a playoff game. I couldn’t agree more. The Falcons have a lot invested in their offense, and it’s the strength of their team -- well, at least the passing game is the strength of this team. The Falcons have to come out throwing the ball against the Seahawks.

Winning brings attention, and Atlanta’s 13-3 regular season did that. The Falcons’ television ratings were up 13 percent over the previous season in the Atlanta market.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The team plans to interview Cincinnati assistant Hue Jackson for the vacancy at offensive coordinator. I think there also will be some other outside candidates interviewing, and I think quarterbacks coach Mike Shula is going to get serious consideration.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

In this Insider post, Mel Kiper Jr. has a re-do of the 2007 NFL draft. The Saints used the No. 27 overall pick on receiver Robert Meachem and he never lived up to his potential. With the benefit of hindsight, Kiper gives the Saints running back Ahmad Bradshaw. I’m not sold on that, because it’s pretty similar to drafting Mark Ingram in 2011. When you’re a pass-happy team like the Saints, I don’t think you need to use first-round picks on running backs. If the Saints had used a first-round pick on a defensive player in 2007, they might not have had as many problems as they did on that side of the ball this past season.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Defensive backs coach Ron Cooper left the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a similar position at the University of South Florida. This wasn’t termed a firing, but I think it was something close to that. The Bucs almost set an NFL record for passing yards allowed in 2012. Someone had to take the fall for that, and it turned out to be Cooper.

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