NFC South: Keith Brooking

Barber, Gonzalez defying age

November, 21, 2012
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano has a reputation for being a hard-edged guy. Some of that’s probably deserved (see his defense when another team lines up in the victory formation), but sometimes Schiano shows another side to the media.

He’s been known to crack a one-liner or two. On Wednesday, Schiano even showed a sentimental side when he talked about Tampa Bay safety Ronde Barber and Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez.

Gonzalez
Barber
“It’s amazing, we have one on our team and they have one on their team,’’ Schiano said. “It’s pretty neat that they are playing each other this weekend.

We all know that Barber and Gonzalez are veteran guys that still are producing at a high level. But until Schiano made the comment, I’d never really thought about what Barber and Gonzalez are doing in strictly numerical terms.

Schiano’s comment prompted me to look around the league at veterans. I’m not counting kickers, punters and long-snappers. I’m not counting guys like Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, who is out with an injury and I’m not counting part-time role players, like Green Bay receiver Donald Driver. And I’m not counting Pittsburgh quarterback Charlie Batch, who hasn't been starting, but appears headed for playing time due to injuries.

I’m only counting position players that have been starting all or most of this season and my research shows that Barber is the oldest player in that category. He’s 37 and is two months older than Washington linebacker London Fletcher, who currently is dealing with an injury. Green Bay center Jeff Saturday, also 37, is No. 3 and Denver linebacker Keith Brooking, who turned 37 three weeks ago, is No. 4.

Gonzalez, who will turn 37 in February, is No. 5.

“When you look at what Tony does, he is really a fine player,’’ Schiano said. “You have to account for him. At that age, that is something.’’

Around the NFC South

September, 18, 2012
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Temporary NFC South Blog headquarters are set up back in the Queen City, where I soon will start looking ahead to Thursday night’s game between the Panthers and Giants.

But, first, let’s take a look at the headlines from around the rest of the division:

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

The Bucs re-signed receiver Jordan Shipley, who briefly was with the team in the preseason. Consider that an indication that receiver Preston Parker is likely to miss some time with a foot injury. Shipley showed great promise as a slot receiver with the Bengals early in his career. But he suffered a major knee injury and the Bengals released him during the preseason and the Bucs picked him up. Shipley didn’t look like he had re-gained his full speed in the preseason. But, if he can get back to full health, he could provide a nice boost for the receiving corps.

The replacement officials are getting criticized after Monday night’s game between Atlanta and Denver. But Stephen Holder points out some missed calls might have played a role in Tampa Bay’s loss to the New York Giants on Sunday. This whole situation has gotten out of hand and the quality of the game is suffering. The NFL needs to do whatever it takes to get the regular officials back to work as soon as possible.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was at the center of the bounty drama early on, but he had seemed to fade in recent months. That now has changed. Williams has been subpoenaed in the defamation lawsuit by linebacker Jonathan Vilma against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. If that case ever makes it to trial and Williams has to testify, things could get fascinating. Williams and Vilma were very close when they worked together, but Williams reportedly has given the NFL a statement that says Vilma offered a $10,000 bounty for anyone that knocked Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the game in the 2009 postseason.

A day after Vilma met with Goodell in New York, defensive end Will Smith and former New Orleans defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove had their meetings with the commissioner. Former New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, also was scheduled to attend. But Fujita backed out of his meeting, saying it was more important to stay in Cleveland.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn isn’t happy about losing his starting job to rookie Josh Norman. That’s understandable. Munnerlyn is a competitor and has lots of pride. But he can still turn this situation into a positive. He still is getting plenty of playing time and is only an injury away from starting again. He also is in the final year of his rookie contract. If he stays focused and performs well, he can get a shot at a starting job elsewhere next season.

Tom Sorensen writes that Carolina’s $89 million investment in contracts for running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert is worth every penny. I agree. Quarterback Cam Newton is the franchise and the passing game is very important, but Newton can be much more dangerous with good running backs behind him.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Mark Bradley writes that the Atlanta secondary might have had its finest game since the NFC Championship Game against Minnesota in the 1998 season. That’s a strong statement, but the secondary was very impressive against Denver on Monday night. The Falcons intercepted Peyton Manning three times in the first quarter. Who does that? What’s more impressive is that the Falcons did it without nickel back Christopher Owens, who missed much of the game after suffering a concussion, and were briefly without Asante Samuel, who was shaken up, but returned to the game. Backups Dominique Franks and Robert McClain stepped in and made big contributions.

Former Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking, now with Denver, did not have a good homecoming Monday. Part of it was because the Broncos lost and part of it was because Brooking drew boos from the fans. That’s understandable because Brooking taunted the Falcons after he went to play for the Dallas Cowboys and fans remember that -- at least for now. However, somewhere down the road (and it will take a few more years), Brooking, who played high school and college football in Georgia, will end up being remembered as one of the most popular Falcons ever.

Around the NFC South

August, 7, 2012
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SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Let’s take a look at the Tuesday morning headlines from around the NFC South.

ATLANTA FALCONS

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

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

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

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

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

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

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

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

CAROLINA PANTHERS

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

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

Around the NFC South

July, 23, 2012
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Let’s take a look at the Monday morning headlines from around the division.
  • With Lofa Tatupu dealing with a pectoral injury that will keep him out for at least the start of training camp, D. Orlando Ledbetter speculates on veteran linebackers the Falcons possibly could add. Mike Peterson’s the logical choice. Even though he’s an outside linebacker and Tatupu plays the middle, Peterson would give the Falcons depth and flexibility. He played for Atlanta the last three seasons as a starter and a backup and has been a strong leader. A lot of Atlanta fans are wondering about the possibility of Keith Brooking returning to Atlanta. I think that’s a very long shot. The current regime decided Brooking wasn’t a fit after the 2008 season and his departure didn’t come on the best of terms. There are other veteran linebackers out there that could be better fits.
  • Here’s an overview of Atlanta’s situation at wide receiver. The first three are set with Roddy White and Julio Jones as the starters and Harry Douglas as the slot guy. But it’s wide open after that. We have yet to see much of Kerry Meier. But the Falcons remain high on him and I think this could be the year Meier becomes a factor.
  • Now that the Carolina Panthers have a new logo, they’re holding an on-line auction to sell some items bearing the old logo. The proceeds will go to charity.
  • The Times-Picayune continues its countdown of the top 25 Saints with guard Jahri Evans at No. 3. Can’t argue that one. Evans is one of the best guards in the league and may have to emerge as even more of a leader with fellow guard Carl Nicks gone to Tampa Bay through free agency.
  • Bradley Handwerger asks and answers the question of if Drew Brees will show any rust after missing the offseason program while negotiating a new contract. That’s a legitimate concern with a lot of players. But, as Handwerger writes, it shouldn’t be an issue with Brees. He always is in top physical condition and you can bet he found some receivers to workout with near his offseason home in San Diego.
  • Roy Cummings writes that it’s possible for the Buccaneers to contend for a playoff spot this year. True. They were 4-12 a year ago. But this is a team that had some talent already on the roster and upgraded it during the offseason. The new coaching staff appears to have everyone on the same page. Plus, NFC South history shows that teams that are down don’t usually stay that way for long.

Around the NFC South

March, 8, 2012
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Let's take a run through the Thursday morning headlines from around the NFC South.

Charlie Campbell has the latest version of his mock draft. He’s got the Bucs taking cornerback Morris Claiborne at No. 5. No big surprise there, because it’s looking like Claiborne and running back Trent Richardson will be the two options. But Campbell does have a surprise at No. 9, where he has Carolina taking defensive tackle Dontari Poe, whose stock seems to be soaring after a strong showing at the combine. Since the Saints and Falcons don’t have first-round picks, we’ll tell you what Campbell has them doing in the second round. He has the Falcons taking center Phillip Blake, which makes sense, because of the age of Todd McClure. He has the Saints taking linebacker Bobby Wagner. That makes sense, simply because the Saints need outside linebackers that can run.

The NFL Players Association has announced it will conduct its own investigation of the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program.

Former Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking has been sued by a bank that says he has $2 million in unpaid loans. A representative for Brooking says that’s not accurate.

The Panthers reportedly signed kicker Justin Medlock, who had a brief stint with the Kansas City Chiefs and has kicked in the Canadian Football League. The Panthers at least want someone in camp to push Olindo Mare, who struggled last season.

The Saints reportedly have agreed to a one-year deal with center Brian de la Puente, who is an exclusive-rights free agent. He’ll probably be looking at a bigger deal down the road, because de la Puente seemingly came out of nowhere to solidify the position after the sudden retirement of Olin Kreutz.
PITTSBURGH -- Almost nothing good happened for the Falcons in Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh.

But the Atlanta media relations department just sent out a couple of notes, so we’ll share them with you. Remember, it’s a short list.

  • Tony Gonzalez became the first tight end in NFL history to reach 1,000 career catches. Gonzalez finished the game with two catches and now has 1,001 career receptions, which ranks him No. 7 among all players.
  • Center Todd McClure set a new franchise record by starting his 129th consecutive game for the Falcons. The previous record (128) was set by Keith Brooking.
  • Roddy White had a career-high 13 catches. He also was targeted 23 times. Although targets weren’t an official statistic until last year, I’m willing to bet that was a career high number of targets for White and it might even be a franchise record.
Curtis LoftonAl Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesLeading the NFL in tackles and making the Pro Bowl are goals for Atlanta linebacker Curtis Lofton.
On an August morning, Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Peria Jerry walked off the practice field and promptly played two games of "Follow The Leader.''

Asked how his surgically repaired knee was coming along, Jerry did what coach Mike Smith does when the topic is injuries. He gave some very general answers. He kept his eyes on the ground and kept mumbling things like, “You’ll have to ask coach Smith about that’’.

Then, the second round started and that’s when Jerry’s eyes picked up and glistened and his mouth started spewing out a steady stream of words, an act that had seemed impossible only a moment ago.

The change all came with one very simple question – “Tell me about Curtis Lofton?’’

“Big Bro? Big Bro? He’s the Big Bro,’’ Jerry said in a sing-song cadence. “That’s what we all call him. If things aren’t going right, Curtis is going to tell you. That’s why I call him Big Bro. It’s his defense. If he’s saying something, then you know something’s not right. People respect him when he tells you something.’’

Make no mistake about it, the Atlanta defense is now Lofton’s defense. After deferring to Keith Brooking as a rookie two seasons ago and Mike Peterson last season, the middle linebacker has taken control of a unit that very well could determine if the Falcons, 9-7 last season, live up to their “Rise Up’’ advertising campaign.

“You can’t be anointed as the leader,’’ Smith said. “You’ve got to play efficiently and you’ve got to play effectively. You’ve got to walk the walk, and he does that. Curtis has earned the right to be a leader, and the fact he earned it is what’s going to make him good at it.’’

As I made my trek through training camps this summer, I talked to coaches, players and front-office people about candidates to call this year’s “breakout player.’’ I got it right last year when I gave the title to New Orleans receiver Robert Meachem, who responded with nine touchdown catches and helped the Saints win the Super Bowl.

I want to get it right again, and I considered a bunch of names that were thrown at me. But Lofton was the one I kept coming back to, and a lot of it had to do with what his coaches and teammates said about him. A lot of it had to do with what Lofton said when we sat down and talked on a bench in Flowery Branch, Ga. He’s a man with some very lofty goals.

“I’d like to make the Pro Bowl,’’ Lofton said. “I’d like to lead the NFL in tackles. Just push myself to be a more complete player, that’s my No. 1 goal.’’

That’s a pretty good goal for someone who already was a pretty good player. Lofton’s been starting since he joined the Falcons as a second-round pick in 2008, and he finished second in the NFL in tackles last season.

Can you really consider someone like that a breakout player? Well, if you look at it the way Lofton does, I think you can.

“Last year, I had the tackles and I had the forced fumbles,’’ Lofton said. “But I never had the game-changing plays.’’

That might happen, because the game now has changed for Lofton.

“He’s been productive in his first two years,’’ defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder said. “But the big thing right now is he’s taking a little bit more ownership of our defense. He’s much more vocal and much more confident, and that’s going to be very important for us.’’

That was obvious on the practice field this summer. With Jerry returning from injury, a strong camp by defensive tackle Corey Peters, the acquisition of free-agent cornerback Dunta Robinson and the arrival of first-round pick Sean Weatherspoon at outside linebacker, the Falcons are expecting big things from their defense.

If you watched the defense practice at all, two things jumped out immediately. The overall speed of the defense is significantly faster than last season. The volume also is a lot higher on the practice field. Much of that’s coming from Weatherspoon, who is a non-stop talking machine. He’s the rah-rah rookie, which is nice.

But watch and listen long enough and you’ll see and hear that Lofton is the voice that counts most on this defense. He’s the guy grabbing other players when they mess up or giving them a shout of encouragement when they make a good play.

[+] EnlargeCurtis Lofton
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCurtis Lofton (left) has become Atlanta's unquestioned vocal leader on defense.
“He’ll get in your face and tell you if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do,’’ safety Thomas DeCoud said. “People can tell if you’re doing it because you’re told to do it or if you’re doing it because you want to. You can tell he wants to do this now, and that’s why everybody listens to him.’’

There was no sit-down where Smith told Lofton it was time to step up and be a leader. It’s been a natural evolution. When Lofton came in as a rookie, Brooking still ran the show because he seemingly had been there forever. Besides, Lofton didn’t really feel comfortable talking much then, because he was only a two-down player. He came off the field in obvious passing downs.

That began to change last season when the Falcons decided to make Lofton an every-down linebacker. He adjusted well to dropping in coverage, but he left the vocal part to Peterson, who had been brought in as a free agent, in large part to provide some veteran leadership for a young defense.

Brooking left for Dallas in 2009. Peterson is getting near the end of his career and sat out much of camp with an injury.

A new leader needed to emerge, and a new leader has emerged. It’s Lofton. The Falcons knew it was time and Lofton knew it was time.

“As a middle linebacker, you’re the guy that people look to to be the leader of the defense,’’ Lofton said. “You’re the guy that makes all the calls and adjustments. My first two years, I was learning and still growing into that position. Now, in the third year, I feel like it’s really my defense. I take responsibility for lining everyone up. If something goes wrong, I want the coach to come to me so I can handle it.’’

That’s why the Falcons think Lofton is about to handle a breakout season.
A team-by-team look at the most indispensable players (non-quarterbacks) in the division.

My basic rule of thumb on this one was to close my eyes and try to picture each team without certain key players. From there, I tried to gauge the impact on the team if each of those players was lost to injury -- or anything else.

In some cases, the answer was blatantly obvious. In others, I went with a player who might not be the best on the team, but his role and the depth situation behind him might have vaulted him over another player. In another case, I went with a player I’m not convinced is anything special, but chose him just because of the importance of his position.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: DONALD PENN

Penn’s the guy I’m not sure is all that great. But his importance was demonstrated right at the start of training camp when the Bucs broke down and gave Penn the huge contract he’d been seeking for months. The thought of putting quarterback Josh Freeman out there -- even on the practice field -- without a legitimate left tackle was just too frightening. For better or worse, Freeman is the franchise in Tampa Bay. At the very least, Penn's a decent left tackle. That means Freeman has a shot at staying upright and the Buccaneers have a shot at digging themselves out of a 3-13 hole. Besides, was there really another candidate for indispensable on Tampa Bay’s current roster?

ATLANTA FALCONS: CURTIS LOFTON

The easy answer here would be to go with running back Michael Turner, and I came very close to doing that. But you can make a case that the Falcons would be able to get by, somewhat like they did when Turner was banged up last season, with some combination of Jason Snelling and Jerious Norwood and a little more emphasis on the passing game. Atlanta’s offense wouldn’t crumble totally without Turner. Without Lofton, the defense might. People are really just starting to realize how good the third-year linebacker is. This summer, he emphatically has taken over as the leader of this defense after staying quiet in deference to veterans Keith Brooking and Mike Peterson in his first two years. Lofton’s become an every-down linebacker and the most respected man on the defensive side of the locker room.

Jonathan Vilma
CAMORRIS.COMJonathan Vilma is the quarterback of the New Orleans Saints' defense.
CAROLINA PANTHERS: JON BEASON

Choosing Beason over Steve Smith is sort of like choosing Lofton over Turner. It wasn’t easy, but I’m doing it. My logic is that, even with no other proven receivers, the Panthers at least still could move the ball on offense with the running of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. If something happens to Beason, the defense is done. Beason’s moving from middle linebacker to the weak side because Thomas Davis is injured. Beason will make at least as many plays in his new spot. Bottom line on this one came when someone with another team asked, “Who do you have to worry about blocking on Carolina’s defense besides Beason?’’ The question was asked rhetorically.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: JONATHAN VILMA

This was the easiest call of all. With apologies to Jahri Evans (you can get by without arguably the best guard in football if you’ve got quality on the rest of your line and the Saints do), it took about two seconds to settle on Vilma and it’s not just because of his obvious physical skills. When I was at New Orleans’ camp, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams went off on a tangent about how cerebral a player Vilma is. He also said something like, “Jon Vilma is the Drew Brees of this defense’’. That’s good enough for me.
When I got back to NFC South Blog headquarters and picked up a week’s worth of mail, there was something in there I was much happier to see than routine bills and advertisements. The NFL’s annual Kickoff Guide was waiting.

It’s prepared by the NFL’s media relations office and includes all sorts of information about the past, present and future. I’ll share some relevant bits and pieces with you over the next few weeks. One item I caught was a listing of retired numbers for each franchise.

The NFC South is comparatively light in this area because these teams didn’t even exist in the days of George Halas. For the record, there are only eight retired jerseys in the NFC South.

The guys who have earned that honor are Atlanta’s Steve Bartkowski (No. 10), William Andrews (No. 31), Jeff Van Note (No. 57) and Tommy Nobis (No. 60), Carolina’s Sam Mills (No. 51), New Orleans’ Jim Taylor (No. 31)and Doug Atkins (No. 81) and Tampa Bay's Lee Roy Selmon (No. 63).

Made one question pop into my mind “Who will be the next player for each franchise to get his number retired?’’ I’d like to hear your candidates, so discuss it below or send a note to my mailbag.

I’ll share my list and I’m going to make it really elite because I think only the greatest of the great should have their numbers retired:

Buccaneers: Derrick Brooks. No question on this one. This guy’s the best player in franchise history. He just needs to officially admit he’s retired, get over the fact the Bucs ended his career before he thought he was ready. The moment he does that, his jersey will be retired in glorious fashion. I've said it before and I'll say it again, Brooks is the best player in NFC South history, although I think there's a quarterback in New Orleans, who has a chance to claim that honor in time.

Panthers: John Kasay. This guy’s been with the franchise since its start. No player has ever been closer to owner Jerry Richardson. Oh, by the way, Kasay also has been a pretty remarkable kicker and has done great things in the community.

Saints: Drew Brees. You can make cases for Willie Roaf and Morten Andersen and that could happen before Brees is even done playing. But I’d pretty much bet the farm that No. 9 will be retired the moment Brees is.

Falcons: Matt Ryan. Yeah, I’m projecting here as the quarterback enters the third year of his career. But I expect greatness for a long time. I’m sure I’ll hear some suggestions for Keith Brooking. He was a very good player for a long time and I respect that, but was Brooking ever truly dominant?

Falcons looking hard at local WR

April, 18, 2010
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The common assumption out there, and I’ve been firmly in this category, is that the Atlanta Falcons are going to go with a defensive player with their first-round pick -- No. 19 overall.

[+] EnlargeThomas
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesThe Atlanta Falcons were out in full force to watch Georgia Tech receiver Demaryius Thomas on Sunday.
But I just heard something that made me pause a bit. A league source tells me the Falcons were out in full force Sunday for a workout by Georgia Tech receiver Demaryius Thomas. General manager Thomas Dimitroff, college scouting director Dave Caldwell, personal director Les Snead and assistant director Lionel Vital all were in attendance. About eight to 10 teams had representatives at the workout, but the Falcons had, by far, the biggest contingent.

Yes, the workout was in Atlanta, so logistics weren’t an issue for the Falcons. But I think they must be looking hard at Thomas if they sent so many people to watch. They already should have a good read on this guy since he’s in their own backyard, but this is a sign that they’re doing extra homework.

Drafting a receiver wouldn’t be a total surprise for Atlanta. Dimitroff admits the Falcons draft for need and defensive end and linebacker seem to be the needs everyone talks about. But there also is a need at receiver.

Roddy White is firmly established as the No. 1 receiver. Michael Jenkins has been the other starter, but he’s somewhat of a role player. In the long term, Thomas could be an upgrade at No. 2. The Falcons still have high hopes for Harry Douglas, but he’s coming back from a major knee injury and projects more as a slot receiver. Veteran Brian Finneran is also in the mix, but he’s more of a situational player.

Thomas is in the Jenkins mold. He’s a bigger receiver -- 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds. He’s not a burner, but he’s tough to tackle and can make things happen after the catch. The best stat I saw on him is that he averaged 25 yards a catch last season. Thomas isn’t known for his blocking, which is perhaps Jenkins’ biggest strength. But he has the size and can be taught to become an effective blocker. He’s also born and raised in Georgia and the Falcons like that kind of thing -- see Dunta Robinson and, in the past, Keith Brooking.

Yes, the Falcons may still go with defense first, but don’t rule this one out. Keep in mind, this team is built around quarterback Matt Ryan and the Falcons try to give him all the toys he needs to succeed.

Final Word: NFC South

October, 23, 2009
10/23/09
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 7:

 
 Jeff Moffett/Icon SMI
 Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking spent 11 seasons with the Falcons.
Changing of the guard? Quarterback Josh Johnson will get the start for Tampa Bay against New England in London. I’m thinking there’s a good chance this will be Johnson’s last start. He’s done some good things at times and I think he’s shown he can be a good backup quarterback. But the Bucs never have viewed Johnson as any sort of long-term answer. Since Byron Leftwich flopped, the Bucs turned to use Johnson as a bridge. He’s a fill-in until the Bucs decide to play rookie Josh Freeman and I think that decision will come soon. The Bucs have a bye after they get back from London and that would be a perfect time to get Freeman practice time with the first team. Freeman is raw and that’s why the Bucs didn’t want to play him early on. But we’re approaching the halfway point of the season and Tampa Bay needs to start showing some progress in its rebuilding program. It’s time to let the guy who’s the focal point of that rebuilding process get on the field.

Ready to erupt. Carolina receiver Steve Smith said he was no longer an asset to the Panthers after catching only one pass for four yards last week. Something tells me Smith’s going to be a lot more productive against the Bills on Sunday. Smith has always been a very emotional player and he has had plenty of outbursts in the past. History has shown the Panthers usually try very hard to soothe their best player after one of his outbursts. They will find ways to get him the ball more than once this week.

The Brooking factor. Dallas linebacker Keith Brooking probably knows Atlanta’s defense better than some of the Falcons. He spent his career with Atlanta until joining the Cowboys this year and was one of the defensive leaders as coach Mike Smith took the Falcons to the playoffs in his first season. Can Brooking’s knowledge of Atlanta’s defense help Dallas’ offense? You bet and I’m sure the Dallas offensive coaching staff tapped into Brooking this week. There’s not much the Falcons can do about that. I’m sure they’ve changed their signals, but Brooking still knows their defensive tendencies and most of the personnel.

The perfect season. The most amazing stat so far this season is that the Saints have yet to trail an opponent. They’re great at jumping out to leads and dictating the game. If they can do that against the Dolphins, they might be able to dictate Miami’s Wildcat offense out of the game plan and force Chad Henne to spend the day passing, which would play right into the hands of the New Orleans defense, which leads the league in takeaways.

A season-saver? I haven’t been particularly impressed by Carolina’s two-game winning streak. They beat Washington and Tampa Bay and struggled to do that. But the Panthers have a chance to go on a three-game winning streak if they can beat Buffalo. The NFL is all about momentum and the Panthers would have a shot at playoff contention if they can get to .500 and have momentum behind them. Yes, the Panthers have plenty of issues, but there’s still a lot of talent on this team and Carolina could be a dark horse if things start clicking.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Despite the team's youthful makeover on defense, the Falcons brought in 33-year-old linebacker Mike Peterson to usher along the process of reshaping the unit.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas


Listen to Mike Peterson talk for about 30 seconds and you'll hear why he's fitting in so nicely -- and quickly -- with the Atlanta Falcons.

"It's a process," Peterson said.

Ah, the old "process" line. If you've followed Mike Smith since he took over as coach of the Falcons last year, you've heard the word at least several hundred times. Around Atlanta, there are smiles and shrugs from fans, media and even some players whenever Smith drops "process" into a sentence.

It sounds nice and you can't really question that Smith is onto something with what he's done with the Falcons, but what does this vague term he seems to live by really mean?

Ask Peterson, because he speaks the language better than anyone else. He actually understands and totally believes in what Smith is saying. He bought into the process long before the rest of the Falcons first heard of it. He bought into it early in the process.

From the day Peterson first met Smith, he's lived the process. They came together back in 2003 in Jacksonville, where Peterson had just joined the Jaguars as a linebacker from the Indianapolis Colts and Smith was the new defensive coordinator for new coach Jack Del Rio.

"He's been talking about 'the process' ever since I met him," Peterson said. "It's simple, really. It just means he's never satisfied. He's always trying to build something more."

(Read full post)

How I See It: NFC South Stock Watch

September, 15, 2009
9/15/09
11:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas


NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Falling

 Delhomme
1. Jake Delhomme, Panthers QB: Delhomme’s stock has crashed in Carolina. His shot at redemption after last season’s playoff disaster against Arizona was ruined when he threw four interceptions against Philadelphia.

The Panthers gave Delhomme a contract extension and a vote of confidence in the offseason, but they can’t go on like this much longer. It’s pretty baffling because Delhomme was a pretty dependable quarterback for a long time, but he suddenly has turned into a turnover machine.

 Piscitelli
2. Sabby Piscitelli, Buccaneers safety: If you didn’t see him in Sunday’s game, you weren’t watching. Piscitelli was largely responsible for three Dallas touchdown passes.

Back in the offseason, the Bucs decided to move Jermaine Phillips to linebacker so they could get Piscitelli in the starting lineup. Maybe Piscitelli should have been the one they moved to linebacker.

 Fox
3. John Fox, Panthers coach: It’s tough to say a coach who was 12-4 last season is on the hot seat, but Fox is truly there. Patience is wearing thin in Charlotte and the Panthers never have had back-to-back winning seasons.

Fox had a built-in excuse two years ago when Delhomme went out with an elbow injury. He often reminded us of the fact the Panthers were playing without their quarterback and he got a free pass. There’s no excuse this year. Fox could have gone out and done something at quarterback after Delhomme fell apart in last season’s playoffs. He didn’t.

Rising

 Sharper
1. Darren Sharper, Saints safety: Yes, he’s old, but Sharper still has it. He picked off Matthew Stafford twice to give him 56 career interceptions.

General manager Mickey Loomis has had his share of misses on the defensive side in recent years, but signing Sharper already has proven to be a solid move. His veteran presence helps the entire secondary and he still can make plays.

 Peterson
2. Mike Peterson, Falcons linebacker: This guy was embarrassed by what happened between him and coach Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville last year. Peterson had been a leader throughout his career and he felt like he was made to look like the bad guy with the Jaguars.

He’s got a fresh start with his former defensive coordinator (coach Mike Smith) and he’s showing he really is a leader. The Falcons aren’t missing Keith Brooking at all.

 Shockey
3. Jeremy Shockey: Saints TE: Shockey’s been a target for ridicule throughout much of his career. Some of it’s due to injuries and some of it's because of his behavior.

But you can never forget that he’s an enormous talent. He caught two touchdowns on Sunday, which is two more than he had all of last year. Makes you wonder what’s possible if he can stay healthy all season.

Wrap-up: Falcons 19, Dolphins 7

September, 13, 2009
9/13/09
7:07
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas


They’re one game into the second year of their regime and Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith still haven’t made a mistake.

How could we have doubted them when they gutted their defense in the offseason? And how could we question that defense after it looked bad in the preseason?

There’s no questioning the decision to rebuild the defense after what that unit did after the season-opening victory against Miami. The Dolphins aren’t a bad team, but the Falcons made them look like one.

The Falcons came just less than four minutes of shutting out the Dolphins. The scary thing is this defense only is going to get better.

The logic behind letting guys like Keith Brooking, Lawyer Milloy and Grady Jackson go was that the Falcons wanted to get younger. They’ve done that and this defense already might be better than last year’s.

NFC South: Final Word

September, 11, 2009
9/11/09
4:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas


Five nuggets of knowledge about this weekend's games:

New Orleans’ defense will look like the Steelers of the 1970s. There’s been a lot of hype about new coordinator Gregg Williams and all the new defensive personnel. We’ve seen glimpses of a new aggressive attitude in the preseason. But we really haven’t seen anything yet. This unit will be spectacular Sunday and that’s naturally going to raise hopes. But keep this one in perspective. The Saints are playing the Detroit Lions and rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford. Williams will go after him and you’re going to see sacks and turnovers -- things that were rare for this defense in the past -- and that’s great. But the Saints have to build from this game and show that this defense can dominate against teams that have won a game sometime in recent memory.
J. Meric/Getty Images
Josh Freeman is No. 2 on the depth chart behind the injury-prone Byron Leftwich.
Josh Freeman’s only an injury away. The Bucs made a lot of offseason noise about how they don’t want rookie quarterback Josh Freeman playing right away. Probably not a bad concept when you look at the Lions and realize the Saints could turn Stafford into the next Joey Harrington. But the Bucs, who’ve done a lot of things that defy logic recently, kind of contradicted themselves when they traded Luke McCown to Jacksonville. Sure, they’ve got veteran Byron Leftwich as the starter and they want him to lead this team through a brutal early schedule. But Leftwich doesn’t have a track record for durability and he’s the only insulation between Freeman and the playing field. With DeMarcus Ware lining up across the way, Bucs fans could be seeing Freeman long before they want to.

If I’m Andy Reid, I’m turning into Joe Paterno: Yeah, I know the Eagles aren’t what anybody would call a power-running team. Brian Westbrook does most of his damage on the fringes and that’s been working nicely for almost a generation. But, if Reid takes a look at the middle of Carolina’s defensive line, he’s got to consider scrapping all that for a day. With Maake Kemoeatu lost for the season, the Panthers likely will start Damione Lewis, who isn’t a run stuffer, and Nick Hayden, who shouldn’t be an NFL starter. They’ll be backed up by two guys who just joined the roster this week. John Fox and Kris Jenkins despised one another when they were together in Carolina. But I’m thinking Fox would gladly swallow his pride and welcome back Jenkins, and all his antics, right about now.

Is Atlanta’s defense really that bad? There was panic in the preseason because the Falcons looked horrible on defense. Yes, there are reasons to be concerned, but don’t freak out about what you see in the preseason because it doesn’t show you the whole picture. The Falcons were cautious with veteran defensive end John Abraham, but they won’t hold him back in the regular season. Yes, they’ve got five new starters on defense and there may be some growing pains. But did you really think the aging Keith Brooking, Lawyer Milloy and Grady Jackson were that vital to a defense that wasn’t exactly great last season? There was a reason the Falcons let them go.

Fantasy advice: We’ve got other people on our site who specialize in this and take their word before mine. But I’ve got some random thoughts this week. If you’ve got a Saint -- any Saint -- start him. If you’ve got Drew Brees or Marques Colston, you’ve already won. Be careful if you’ve got a Tampa Bay running back -- Cadillac Williams, Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham are going to be splitting carries. With the possible exception of Brees, DeAngelo Williams is going to be the most solid fantasy player in the NFC South each week. Don’t let all the Tony Gonzalez and Jerious Norwood hype steer you away from Michael Turner.

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