NFC South: Joe Hawley


A lot has changed for the Atlanta Falcons since their 56-14 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in September.

In that Thursday night game, they looked like Super Bowl contenders. But the Falcons haven't won since. They've lost five straight and look like a team that's falling apart.

Not much has changed for the Bucs. They're 1-7 and in sole possession of last place in the NFC South. ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas and ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure examine the matchup of two of the league's most disappointing teams:

Yasinskas: Vaughn, I'm sure you could write a book on what's gone wrong with the Falcons. We don't have the space for all of that here. In a quick synopsis, what happened to the Falcons?

McClure: The problems have been across the board, Pat. The coaching hasn't been adequate, as was evident with clock-management issues in the game against Detroit in London, when the Falcons blew a 21-0 lead. The offense hasn't been nearly as explosive as anticipated, with Matt Ryan uncharacteristically more off target than usual and his receivers dropping passes.

The defense can't generate pressure up front, which has allowed opposing quarterbacks to extend plays and come up with big gains, particularly on third down. And a telling stat to me is that the Falcons have been outscored 84-24 in the fourth quarter. They need improvement across the board, and I just don't see much reason for optimism in the second half, save for this game against the Buccaneers.

The Falcons destroyed the Bucs in Week 3. Could we see another blowout or have the Buccaneers made enough strides since then?

Yasinskas: I wouldn't rule out another rout -- though I think the Bucs will at least play Atlanta closer this time. That hunch has more to do with the Falcons' struggles than it does with anything the Bucs have done.

The Bucs seemed to be making strides a few weeks ago. Then they lost big to Baltimore at home. That game was even uglier than the loss to Atlanta. Coach Lovie Smith keeps saying his team is making strides and I tend to agree with him, but Tampa Bay hasn't done enough to win.

I know Atlanta owner Arthur Blank had high expectations and he's not the most patient guy in the world. How hot is coach Mike Smith's seat right now?

McClure: It's scorching hot right now, which is somewhat hard to believe considering the Falcons were 13-3 two years ago and in the NFC Championship Game. But as Blank moves forward with his plans to open a new stadium in 2017, he wants a consistent winner to occupy the building. And the Falcons have been consistently bad the last two seasons.

Smith is known for being a nice guy, and fans would tell you that they're fed up with that approach. And Blank is trying to appeal to the fan base. So it's going to take a dramatic turnaround for Smith to save his job. I don't even think just making the playoffs in a bad NFC South would be enough for him. But I'm sure Smith will continue to approach the job in a professional manner. And I don't see Blank making a move until after the season, unless the Falcons lose big in Tampa.

The Falcons will have to contend with Josh McCown on Sunday, and he struggled in the first matchup between the teams. What is the benefit in going with McCown over Mike Glennon at this stage?

Yasinskas: I don't know that McCown is any better than Glennon. In fact, I think Glennon has done good things and has shown poise behind a bad offensive line. McCown didn't look too good in the first three games of the season. But he was Lovie Smith's hand-picked quarterback and they were together in Chicago. More than anything, though, I think the hope is that going with McCown will provide a spark for an offense that hasn't gotten into rhythm at all this season.

Speaking of quarterbacks, I have always been impressed by how efficient Ryan is -- but that's not the case this year. What has gone wrong?

McClure: First and foremost, you have to look at what has happened along the offensive line. The Falcons lost left tackle Sam Baker to a season-ending injury in the preseason, tackle Lamar Holmes to a season-ending foot injury and starting centers Joe Hawley and Peter Konz to season-ending ACL injuries. So Ryan is playing behind a patchwork offensive line.

Ryan has seen a number of his receivers, including top target Julio Jones, drop catchable passes. But Ryan has made his share of poor throws, including arguably the worst interception of his career, a momentum-changing play against the Lions. After the way he sliced up New Orleans in the season opener, Ryan looked well on his way to a Pro Bowl-type season. But he got humbled along the way, particularly on the road. And Ryan hasn't been able to throw consistently down the field.

Remember, Ryan did find Jones for a long touchdown in the first game between these teams. Will the Bucs' defense be able to put the clamps on Jones, Roddy White and Devin Hester or are there too many defensive holes?

Yasinskas: Tampa Bay's defense ranks No. 31 overall, which is shocking and disappointing when you're talking about a team coached by Lovie Smith. The Falcons certainly have enough talent and speed to cause problems in the passing game. The Tampa 2 defense has taken a lot of criticism with people saying it's outdated. But Smith believes in the scheme and refuses to change.

It was clear from the outset how the Atlanta Falcons wanted to approach free agency: Get stronger up front.

The offensive and defensive lines struggled miserably last season. So if money was going to be spent on free agents, it was bound to be spent on offensive and defensive linemen, not safeties or tight ends.

Such was the case when the Falcons agreed to terms with defensive linemen Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, and offensive guard Jon Asamoah.

Starting with Soliai, the Falcons rewarded the big nose tackle with a five-year contract with a max value of $33 million with $14 million guaranteed, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. The 6-foot-4, 340-pound Soliai immediately becomes the Falcons' most intimidating defensive lineman. And he'll be counted upon to take on double teams and pave the way for the linebackers to make plays with the Falcons expected to move toward more of a 3-4-based scheme.

Jackson (6-4, 296) will be a key figure up front, too. The former third-overall pick in 2009 was drafted by Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli when Pioli was the Chiefs' general manager. Jackson reportedly received a five-year deal worth a max of $25 million.

And Asamoah, who also agreed to a five-year deal (financial terms were not immediately available), might be the guy with the biggest burden to carry. The offensive line has been horrendous, allowing Matt Ryan to be the league's most pressured quarterback last season. The Falcons hope Asamoah steps in at right guard and develops into a stabilizing force. He is known for his pass protection and should be able to provide support as a run-blocker.

"Jon is a physical, experienced offensive lineman that will add a veteran presence to our offensive line," Falcons coach Mike Smith said about Asamoah.

The Falcons got it right. They addressed the most pressing needs from the outside and also re-signed two other key figures in center Joe Hawley and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. Hawley should start in the middle with Asamoah and left guard Justin Blalock next to him. Babineaux should add depth to the defensive line rotation.

It all could equal a climb back to the top for the Falcons, although other aspects still need to take shape. The release of former Pro Bowl free safety Thomas DeCoud means the Falcons have to find a capable replacement next to strong safety William Moore. There is still a void at tight end with Tony Gonzalez retiring, although Levine Toilolo will be counted upon to elevate his game.

More importantly, the Falcons need to look at adding an offensive tackle and pass-rusher, maybe through the draft. The names that immediately come to mind are Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson, Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack. Right now, the Falcons hold the sixth-overall pick in the draft.

It will make for some interesting decisions to come. But for now, the Falcons made the right choice.

"We were focused on adding pieces along our offensive and defensive lines, and I feel we were able to accomplish that today," general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.

Certainly the Falcons have much more to accomplish.

Franchise/transition tags: Falcons

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
The franchise tag might have entered into play for the Atlanta Falcons this season had Matt Ryan's contract been an issue.

It isn't.

The quarterback was locked up prior to last season with a five-year, $103.75 million contract extension that included $59 million guaranteed. It kept 2013 from being the final year of his original six-year, $72 million rookie contract ($34.74 million guaranteed).

In others words, it won't be a concern for the Falcons once the first day for designating the franchise tag on a player comes Monday. The last time the Falcons used the franchise tag was on cornerback Brett Grimes in 2012 -- at a one-year price of $10.28 million -- as the two sides were unable to reach a long-term deal. Grimes, who suffered a season-ending Achilles' injury that year, now faces the possibility of being tagged again as the member of the Miami Dolphins.

As for the Falcons, they have no reason to designate a franchise player this year among a group of impending unrestricted free agents that includes defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry and Corey Peters. Some of the others bound for free agency include center Joe Hawley, tight end Chase Coffman and offensive tackle Mike Johnson. Free agency officially begins at 4 p.m. on March 11, although teams are allowed to negotiating with agents of players on other teams on March 9.

Maybe the franchise tag comes into play for the Falcons again if for some reason they can't get top receiver Julio Jones signed to a long-term deal before the 2015 season.

The deadline for designating franchise or transition players is 4 p.m. March 3. Eight players were slapped with the franchise tag last season.

Once a team designates a franchise player, it has until July 15 to work out a long-term extension with that player.

And once again, that shouldn't apply to the Falcons this year.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Atlanta Falcons' coaching staff got an early Christmas gift Monday night: improved play on the offensive line.

No, it was not a strong enough performance to wipe out every bad memory from this season. But it was an encouraging sign from a unit that was expected to be dominated by a San Francisco 49ers front seven touted as arguably the best in the NFL.

Falcons coach Mike Smith hasn’t singled out the play of an offensive lineman too often this season. Tuesday afternoon, he singled out three.

Although quarterback Matt Ryan did a masterful job improvising at times, his pocket was clean for the most part, which helped him complete a career-high 37 passes. He was sacked just once and was able to go deep more than he had all season.

"The interior of the pocket was a little more stout," Smith said. "I thought that we did a very good job with scheming, with chipping, helping and having backs chip out, tight ends chip out before they went into their routes.

"The two tackles [Lamar Holmes and Ryan Schraeder], they had tough draws. I thought they handled it well. I thought Matt [had a] very good pocket as well. And I really feel, after watching the tape on the ride back and watching it this morning, that Joe Hawley did a nice job cleaning the pocket up."

Hawley has been solid at center since taking the starting job away from Peter Konz, so his performance wasn’t that shocking. But Holmes held his own at left tackle against pass-rush demon Aldon Smith, while right tackle Schraeder did the same against Ahmad Brooks. Schrader fared well against Smith, too.

Holmes had a couple of false starts in the first half, but he settled down in the second half and competed with Smith. Bad technique seemed to cause Schraeder to fall on his back during one play, but he quickly shook it off.

"I thought Ryan Schraeder continued to show improvement, as an undrafted rookie getting his second start on 'Monday Night Football,'" Smith said. "I thought he did a nice job. He battled. He battled against a very good front seven."

The Falcons need to find five players capable of battling each and every week. Hawley looks like a keeper at center, while left guard Justin Blalock has been the only offensive lineman to keep his starting job throughout the season. Schraeder continues to show promise as the right tackle of the future, while the Falcons hope to get left tackle Sam Baker back healthy next season after knee surgery.

The coaches still believe Holmes has a bright future despite his obvious struggles. And the fact that Harland Gunn played 45 snaps at left guard against the 49ers, compared with 27 for Konz, is telling in terms of Konz’s status after losing his job at center.

If the line manages to string together back-to-back strong performances, the coaches truly would have something to build upon. And the Falcons finish the season against another one of league’s top defensive fronts in the Carolina Panthers.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- At age 37, Tony Gonzalez needs a break every now and then.

Fortunately for the Atlanta Falcons tight end, he’s able to preserve his body for at least a few plays as of late, when offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter inserts tackle Ryan Schraeder as an extra tight end as part of the jumbo package to enhance the run and beef up protection. It takes away some of the blocking responsibilities from Gonzalez, who can focus more on route-running in those situations runner.

"It’s great," Gonzalez said Thursday. "I’ll take it wherever I can get it. … I still have high energy. But at the same time, it isn’t what it used to be. I still feel like I can play at the same level, but I do get a little bit more tired than I used to. So it’s great for that jumbo package to come in and get me a little bit of breather. Maybe I don’t have to be at the point (of attack) every time. And those guys are capable."

The Falcons made a concerted effort last week to incorporate the rookie Schraeder into the offensive game plan as both the tackle-eligible player and at right tackle in place of Jeremy Trueblood. Joe Hawley had served as the extra tackle in the jumbo package before becoming the regular starter at center. Koetter also wanted to utilize rookie tight end Levine Toilolo more often as an extra blocker as Toilolo looks to improve that skill.

"A lot of it, too, at this point, obviously we’re not going to the playoffs, and those young guys need to come in and get that experience," Gonzalez said. "Because they’re going to be around here and they’re going to be, hopefully, staples in this offense for a long time. And they need to get the job done and show what they’re capable of doing and get that experience."

Not to mention Gonzalez has been dealing with a nagging toe injury for the past few weeks. Head coach Mike Smith said Gonzalez was "ahead of schedule’’ in terms of fully recovering from the injury.

Still, the Falcons figure Gonzalez’s body has gone through enough punishment over almost a full 17 seasons, so they’ll continue to spell him on occasion during his final four NFL games before retirement.

"Tony is as good a pass blocker as there is, but we try not to put Tony in that situation too often just for the wear and tear on him," Koetter said of using the jumbo package. "As long as we can have runs and passes out of it so we’re not too predictable, so that every time that guy comes in we’re going to run. Which last week, I think it worked out perfect."
Jacquizz RodgersScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesThe Falcons couldn't get Jacquizz Rodgers into the end zone on the final play of the first half.
ATLANTA -- One yard.

That's all that stood between the Atlanta Falcons and rebounding from a dismal 2013 start.

One yard might have given them much-needed momentum going into the bye week. One yard might have given fans hope the team would sneak right back into the playoff picture.

Instead, Monday night ended with one resounding thud.

There were a variety of reasons why the Falcons suffered their third straight defeat, falling to 1-4 with a 30-28 loss to the New York Jets, who kicked the game-winning field goal as time expired. Some folks will put the blame on head coach Mike Smith, particularly after he decided against going for a field goal with a second left before halftime.

Smith admitted, in hindsight, maybe settling for three would have been the best option. But he believed his team could get the one yard necessary for a touchdown. He expressed faith in his offense, faith in his quarterback, faith in his offensive line.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan, Quinton Coples
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMatt Ryan was only sacked twice, but he felt the pressure from the Jets.
Those out there not upset with Smith are certainly pointing fingers at each and every offensive lineman for not helping Jacquizz Rodgers pick up that yard on fourth-and-goal. Truth be told, there's no reason to call out the linemen on this one. They pointed fingers at themselves.

"Probably would have been better if we had gotten a better push," right guard Garrett Reynolds said. "I don't know exactly what happened. I haven't watched it. But we didn't get in there."

Based on the replay, it appeared at least two front-line Falcons got beat on the play. Joe Hawley, the backup center who lined up as an extra lineman in the tight end spot, seemed to miss his block and allow penetration to Jets defender Quinton Coples. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood appeared to get overpowered by Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who was credited with dropping Rodgers for no gain.

"What did I see? I was just trying to block my guy," Trueblood said. "I wish I would have done a better job. If I would [have gotten] my man, [Rodgers] would have scored."

Owning up to the mistakes is the first step. Correcting those errors is the next phase for the much-maligned offensive line.

The front five have been the object of much criticism since an ugly showing in the preseason. This line underwent a major facelift from last season with center Todd McClure retiring and right tackle Tyson Clabo being released, then signing with the Miami Dolphins. The Falcons were prepared to start Mike Johnson in place of Clabo until Johnson went down for the remainder of the season with a broken leg and dislocated ankle.

Then left tackle Sam Baker, who was stellar last season, went down with an injury in Week 4 against the New England Patriots, which forced demoted right tackle Lamar Holmes to take over at left tackle alongside left guard Justin Blalock, center Peter Konz, Reynolds and Trueblood.

The makeshift line has had its struggles. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter compensated by orchestrating plays to help quarterback Matt Ryan release the ball quicker to avoid pressure.

Still, Ryan has been sacked at key times this season, including against the Patriots when Holmes allowed Ryan to get sacked in the red zone. On Monday night, Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson beat Trueblood and Reynolds, swooping in for a sack-fumble play on Ryan. The turnover led to a Nick Folk field goal.

The line must have gotten a pep talk from offensive line coach Pat Hill at halftime Monday night. The performance in the second half was much better, particularly in terms of clearing holes in the running game. Rodgers had two red-zone touchdown runs in the second half. And Ryan didn't get sacked in the fourth quarter, when he completed 12 of 18 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown.

Regardless, that one yard the Falcons couldn't pick up before halftime might stick with them the entire season. Still, Ryan refused to blame the line.

"I thought they did a good job," he said. "I thought they fought the entire night. It's a good defense that we went against, specifically a very good front seven. And I thought our guys stepped up to the challenge.

"We ran the ball really effectively in the red zone. We just didn't run it effectively on that one play."

The Falcons don't have much of a choice but to ride with the offensive linemen they have now. Getting Baker back healthy might help, but he struggled when he was in the lineup. There aren't too many quality linemen sitting on the streets, and the Falcons have no current interest in recently released tackle Max Starks. Plus the organization still has high hopes for Holmes developing into a Pro Bowl-caliber tackle down the road.

Building toward the future is great, but the Falcons have to be more concerned about the present. If they have any thoughts of rebounding from this dismal 1-4 start, the line has to hold up its end. If it doesn't, the critics will continue to feast on the entire group.

"We always say we're all we got; we're all we need," Reynolds said. "All these people out here saying stuff about us. That's OK. That's their opinion. They don't know what we do. They don't know how hard we work. We have to take it on ourselves to continue to get better. We're a team. We're going to stick together."
With the release of right tackle Tyson Clabo and the retirement of center Todd McClure, the Atlanta Falcons have a lot of uncertainty on their offensive line.

Coach Mike Smith didn’t set forth any concrete plan Thursday night at the team’s State of the Franchise event.

“There’s going to be an open, big competition with our offensive line,’’ Smith said. “We’ve got some young guys that we’ve drafted and they’re ready to step in and do it. I can’t say to you right now who’s going to line up (where), but it’s going to be very, very competitive.’’

Smith did reveal that the departures of Clabo and McClure mean there likely will be three new starters on the offensive line. Smith said Peter Konz, who spent most of his rookie season at right guard, will move inside and compete with Joe Hawley for the starting spot at center.

I think it’s fair to say that Konz is the favorite to win that job. But the right guard and right tackle positions appear to be wide open.

Smith said Garrett Reynolds and Mike Johnson will compete for the starting job at right guard and Johnson will compete with Lamar Holmes for the starting spot at right tackle. Holmes and Johnson are recent draft choices who haven’t received a lot of playing time. But that appears likely to change.

“The one thing I think everyone needs to understand about our movement is that we have drafted young guys to learn and be schooled and learn along the way,’’ general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “This is the time where they need to step up. This is their time. We needed to do this. It’s time for our young guys to develop and we have faith in them.’’
The Atlanta Falcons have been fairly active this offseason and are likely to have several new starters next season. At the moment, here’s how I see Atlanta’s starting lineup:


WR Roddy White

LT Sam Baker

LG Justin Blalock

C Peter Konz

RG Garrett Reynolds

RT Lamar Holmes

TE Tony Gonzalez

WR Julio Jones

QB Matt Ryan

RB Steven Jackson

FB Bradie Ewing


DE Osi Umenyiora

DT Corey Peters

DT Jonathan Babineaux

DE Kroy Biermann

OLB Stephen Nicholas

MLB Akeem Dent

OLB Sean Weatherspoon

CB Asante Samuel

CB Robert McClain

SS William Moore

FS Thomas DeCoud

Notes: I think it is almost a certainty that the Falcons will be bringing in another cornerback late in free agency or in the draft. McClain might be best suited as a third corner. There’s flexibility on the offensive line. There’s an outside chance Joe Hawley could factor in at center, allowing Konz to start at right guard. If that happens, Reynolds could slide out to compete with Holmes at right tackle. The Falcons also could invest an early-round pick on an offensive lineman.
It has to be a bittersweet time for the Atlanta Falcons with center Todd McClure saying he’s going to retire.

A formal announcement is expected after owner Arthur Blank returns from next week's NFL meetings. Let’s start this off by sending some kudos McClure’s way. Drafted by Atlanta in 1999, McClure has been a fixture on the offensive line through some very good times and some bad times. He’s been a class act all the way and still was playing at a high level last season.

But McClure said it’s time to move on.

That means it also is time for the Falcons to move on. Replacing McClure’s leadership and experience won’t be easy. But the Falcons do have some other options at center and they’ve prepared for this moment by drafting Peter Konz and Joe Hawley in recent years.

The most likely scenario is Konz, who started at guard the second half of last season, shifting to center. That’s the position Konz played in college. If Konz makes the move, it could clear the way for Garrett Reynolds to move back in as a starting guard.

Reynolds began last season as a starter. But he suffered an injury and was replaced by Konz.

Looking at Falcons' offensive snaps

February, 12, 2013
Considering injuries played such a big part in holding him back the first four years of his career, Atlanta tackle Sam Baker reached a remarkable milestone in the 2012 season. The left tackle did not miss a single snap.

Baker participated in all of Atlanta’s 1,060 offensive plays. So did guard Justin Blalock.

Let’s take a look at the rest of the playing time percentages for the rest of Atlanta’s offense.

Atlanta's offensive playing time

January, 8, 2013
We already showed you the playing-time breakdown for the Atlanta Falcons defense.

Now, let’s switch over to the offensive side, where the Falcons had 1,073 plays. Here’s the complete breakdown of how many snaps each offensive player got, followed by my thoughts: My thoughts: In the final analysis, the Falcons had Rodgers on the field about as much as Turner. Limiting Turner’s playing time was a goal at the start of the season and Rodgers seemed to gain more trust from the coaching staff as time went on. … Konz was the only member of the rookie class to get much playing time. Although some fans thought Holmes had a chance to start, the team viewed him as a project. … Baker played every snap and stayed healthy for an entire season. He turned in a solid year and that probably means the Falcons will make a fairly strong effort to keep him from leaving as a free agent.

Hawley's return gives Falcons depth

December, 24, 2012
The Atlanta Falcons got some much-needed depth back on their offensive line Monday afternoon.

The team announced that Joe Hawley has been put back on the active roster after serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. The Falcons made room for Hawley by placing wide receiver Kevin Cone on injured reserve.

Prior to his suspension, Hawley was the top backup to center Todd McClure and guards Justin Blalock and Peter Konz. Hawley likely will step immediately back into that same role.

NFC South afternoon update

December, 17, 2012
I just arrived back at NFC South blog headquarters, so let’s take a quick run through some headlines from around the division:


Coach Mike Smith needs to shut down Roddy White’s Twitter account. White, who has a history of offending people on Twitter, criticized Jeff Green of the Boston Celtics. I stopped following the NBA after Larry Bird, Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale left the Celtics and find the NBA quite boring these days. But the last thing I want to hear is White’s opinion on anything outside of football. And I'm not even sure that letting White share his opinions on football is a very good idea.

Center/guard Joe Hawley will return to the team Tuesday after serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. I wouldn’t count on Hawley’s return making much difference. Hawley is a guy the Falcons once hoped would be the eventual replacement for veteran center Todd McClure. But I don’t think the team’s hopes for Hawley are too high these days.


Tom Sorensen writes that a lot of people within the Panthers’ organization believe that the season could have gone in a totally different direction if the Panthers had held on in and won against the Falcons in the Georgia Dome in a game in late September. The fact is the Panthers didn’t win that game and it put their season into a downward spiral. They won the rematch with Atlanta, they won on Sunday at San Diego and, if they finish their season with strong performances in the final two games, coach Ron Rivera stands a good chance of keeping his job.

A group of Panthers’ fans took out a full-page ad (there's no indication center Ryan Kalil was involved in this one) in The Charlotte Observer on Monday, imploring owner Jerry Richardson to get rid of Rivera. I’m happy to see advertising money flowing to any newspaper at a time when the industry is struggling. But I’m not so sure the plea carries much weight. Like I said above, I think there’s a decent chance Rivera keeps his job. I also think there’s a growing chance interim general manager Brandon Beane moves into that role on a permanent basis.


Jeff Duncan writes that there still is a very remote chance the Saints could make the playoffs. It would take something close to a miracle. But, hey, if it doesn’t happen, maybe the Saints can file another appeal.

Nakia Hogan writes that Sunday marked the first time a defense coached by Steve Spagnuolo ever shut out an opponent. That’s great. But don’t get too excited. Tampa Bay was dismal on offense and that might have had as much to do with the shutout as anything the Saints did.


Quarterback Josh Freeman said that a team that got shut out by the NFL’s worst defense still is “unified.’’ I don’t think the Bucs are in complete disarray like they were under former coach Raheem Morris at the end of last season. But I think new coach Greg Schiano needs to get better results out of his team in the final two games or else the Bucs will face a very long offseason. Schiano’s hard-line approach seemed to work nicely early in the season, but what’s happened recently makes you wonder if his methods are wearing thin on his players.

NFC South afternoon update

November, 20, 2012
It’s been a pretty quiet day in the NFC South. That’s not uncommon because Tuesday generally is a day with no practices and a day off for players. But we’ve got a few odds and ends worth noting.
  • Tampa Bay safety Ronde Barber has the longest active streak of games started at 209. Washington linebacker London Fletcher (193) is the next guy on the list and his streak may end due to an injury. It’s the same story for Detroit center Jeff Backus, who is third with 186 consecutive starts. Barber is tied with Fletcher for the most consecutive games played in (234) and Barber could have sole possession of that if Fletcher sits out.
  • The Buccaneers announced that cornerback Anthony Gaitor, who was on injured reserve with the eligible-to-return designation will begin practicing Wednesday. Gaitor’s return could give the Bucs some much-needed depth because starter Eric Wright has been dealing with an Achilles tendon injury.
  • With center/guard Joe Hawley suspended for four games after violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, the Falcons filled his roster spot by signing guard Harland Gunn. An undrafted free agent this year, Gunn first was signed by the Dallas Cowboys and then spent time on the New Orleans practice squad.
  • The Saints are dealing with a similar situation on their offensive line with right tackles Zach Strief and Charles Brown both dealing with injuries. As a result of that, the Saints have signed offensive lineman William Robinson, who was on the New Orleans practice squad last year.

NFC South evening update

November, 19, 2012
Time for a run through the top headlines of the day from around the NFC South.


The agent for backup center/guard Joe Hawley said his client’s four-game suspension is due to using the prescription drug Adderall in September without filling out the proper paperwork with the NFL. It’s unclear if Hawley had a prescription. But NFL rules are very clear that it is a banned substance unless it’s use is approved by the league in individual cases. The agent also said Hawley is not appealing the suspension.

Although cornerback Asante Samuel, receiver Julio Jones and defensive tackle Peria Jerry all were banged up Sunday, coach Mike Smith said Monday he feels comfortable with his team’s injury situation.


Coach Ron Rivera said he’s had several recent conversations with owner Jerry Richardson and knows his future is uncertain in Carolina. It’s good that Rivera recognizes that because it’s pretty obvious to the entire world that he’s on the hot seat. Rivera’s a great guy and I think he could be a successful head coach in the right situation. But, unless the Panthers have some sort of dramatic turnaround in the coming weeks, I don’t see any scenario where Rivera remains as their coach next season.

Defensive end Charles Johnson took to Twitter to imply that some of his teammates are not working hard enough after Carolina’s defense collapsed late in Sunday’s loss to Tampa Bay. It’s good that someone is asking for accountability. But I’m not sure Twitter is the best means to accomplish that. Maybe former general manager Marty Hurney had a point when, on the day he was fired, he said the team didn’t have enough leaders stepping forward. Johnson’s message might carry a little more weight if he delivered it in the locker room instead of on the computer.


After sitting out the first six weeks of the season while recovering from knee problems, Jonathan Vilma is starting to get more playing time at weak-side linebacker. He played on 74 percent of the defensive snaps in Sunday’s victory at Oakland. New Orleans’ maligned defense has started to play better recently and I don’t think that it’s just a coincidence that things have started to turn as Vilma gets more playing time.

Interim head coach Joe Vitt said the knee injury to right tackle Charles Brown still is being evaluated. Brown had been starting in place of Zach Strief, who has been out with a groin injury. Rookie Bryce Harris filled in after Brown’s injury Sunday and Vitt did not rule out the possibility of the Saints signing another tackle for the short term.


Stephen Holder writes that cornerback Aqib Talib’s debut with the Patriots was pretty similar to what he did during his time with the Bucs. Talib had an interception and returned it for a touchdown Sunday, but he also gave up two touchdowns. It’s all or nothing with Talib. He’s talented, but consistency never has been his strong point. The Patriots are finding that out quickly. We’ll see if they also get to find out that Talib has a tendency to find problems off the field.

Speaking of Tampa Bay and the situation at cornerback, Eric Wright sounded a little ominous when he said “we might have to make a decision’’. Wright has been dealing with a linger injury to his Achilles tendon and he at list left the impression that going on injured reserve is a possibility. Beyond Wright, the Bucs don’t have much depth at cornerback.