NFC South: Matt Cassel

Vikings vs. Saints preview

September, 19, 2014
9/19/14
8:00
AM ET

It has been a turbulent start to the 2014 season, to say the least, for both the Minnesota Vikings (1-1) and New Orleans Saints (0-2) as they head toward their Week 3 matchup in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Minnesota’s issues run much deeper than football. Star running back Adrian Peterson has been indicted on a felony child-abuse charge in Texas; on Wednesday, the Vikings put Peterson on their exempt list, barring him from games and practices.

The Vikings deactivated Peterson for their Week 2 game, a 30-7 loss at home to the New England Patriots.

The Saints, meanwhile, are hoping to use their home opener to rally back from two stunning, last-second losses at Atlanta and Cleveland.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling discuss this week's matchup:

Triplett: How much did the Vikings miss Peterson on the field last Sunday? And how do they try to fill that void this week?

Goessling: Against a Patriots team that appeared vulnerable against the run, they missed Peterson considerably. He didn't have a great first game of the season in St. Louis, but a large part of what Peterson brings to the offense, even when he's not being terribly productive, is the number of looks he opens up for others simply by the attention he commands from defenses.

Matt Asiata caught a touchdown pass last week and is a decent between-the-tackles runner. They also like rookie Jerick McKinnon, though they haven't gotten him involved in the offense yet. But no matter what the Vikings do, they're not going to be able to replace Peterson. They have some good weapons in their passing game, and they'll have to make them work. Without Peterson, though, the Vikings' offense looks a lot less intimidating.

The Saints will be without running back Mark Ingram. How will that change their offense this weekend?

Triplett: It's basically the exact opposite of what you just described. Ingram has been off to a fantastic start -- probably playing the best of his career. But he's also more replaceable than Peterson because the Saints have such good depth at running back. Veteran Pierre Thomas and second-year pro Khiry Robinson are both off to good starts this season as well. And they're more than capable of increasing their workload.

Most important, the entire Saints run game has been thriving since late last season, which has helped all three of their backs. The Saints are tied for fifth in the NFL with 156.5 rushing yards per game, and they’re ranked second with 5.7 yards per carry. Normally those numbers translate to victories.

What other parts of Minnesota's offense will the Saints need to prepare for? It looks like Cordarrelle Patterson has given the Vikings a new dimension. And can Matt Cassel match points with Drew Brees if needed?

Goessling: You're right about Patterson adding some new wrinkles to the Vikings' offense. He has taken the baton from Percy Harvin, in the sense that the Vikings can use him out of the backfield, get the ball to him on screens and employ him as a kick returner. The one area where Patterson still needs to improve, actually, is as a receiver. He struggled mightily last week while trying to get separation from press coverage, and while his route-running has improved, he's still learning how to be a reliable option for Cassel.

As for Cassel's ability to match points with Brees ... boy, I don't know. The Vikings had trouble protecting him last week, and he threw a couple of bad interceptions when he wasn't able to look off defenders. If it turned into that kind of game, I'd be a little worried about the Vikings' ability to keep up.

One of the ways the Saints' offense could get rolling, obviously, is Jimmy Graham. Is there any recipe to slowing him down right now? What would your advice be to the Vikings about how to cover him?

Triplett: Well, don't ask the Browns. They tried a little bit of everything last week, including Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden and corner Buster Skrine at times. And Graham just exploited the size mismatch.

When teams have had success against Graham, they had to devote more than one resource. The Patriots pressed him with corner Aqib Talib and played zone behind him; the Seahawks bracketed him, often using Earl Thomas as a spy; and the Eagles chipped him with defensive ends off the line. The problem, though, is that exposes teams to all of the Saints' other weapons, including their much-improved run game and dynamic new receiver Brandin Cooks. It's a pick-your-poison offense that's almost immune to double-teams.

So where is the Vikings' defense most vulnerable?

Goessling: Especially against a team that can spread them out like the Saints can, I'd have to say it's the secondary. Xavier Rhodes is the top cornerback, but he was playing with a groin injury last week, gave up four catches and got flagged three times. Captain Munnerlyn gave up a touchdown, and the secondary depth is a concern. As you mentioned, the process of stopping Graham is a group effort, and the Saints have so many options that the Vikings could have trouble keeping up, especially if they have as much trouble getting to Brees as they did to Tom Brady last week.

Speaking of defensive vulnerabilities, the Saints' defense looks to have taken a significant step back in the first two weeks of the season. First, where has the pass rush gone, and second, do you see a quick fix for the defensive issues?

Triplett: I definitely expect vast improvement by the Saints' defense. The talent is there, from pass-rushers Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette and Akiem Hicks to middle linebacker Curtis Lofton to No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis and safeties Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro. All have actually played well this season. But the Saints were done in by things such as missed tackles in Week 1 and blown assignments and penalties in Week 2. All extremely frustrating -- but correctable -- issues.

The biggest concern is the depth at cornerback. The Saints might have to make a change at the No. 2 cornerback spot, where teams have been picking on Patrick Robinson. A more consistent pass rush would certainly help in that department as well.



The way things have gone for the Philadelphia Eagles this season, you half expected to hear that Drew Brees fell down an elevator shaft or was hit by some space junk. But no, the New Orleans Saints' superb quarterback will not go the way of Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Tony Romo the week before their teams played the Eagles.

Of course, that doesn't mean anyone knows which Brees will show up for the first-round playoff game Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field. Will it be the Brees with the 8-0 record at home, or the Brees who has gone 3-5 on the road this season?

In search of the answer to this and other questions, ESPN.com reporters Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Phil Sheridan in Philadelphia exchanged insight and info.

Phil Sheridan: Let’s start with the obvious: the disparity between the Saints at home and on the road. Is it mostly Brees? The fast track at the Superdome versus grass fields elsewhere? Exposure to electromagnetic waves in the outdoors? Some combination?

Mike Triplett: Shoot, if I had the answer to that question, I’d probably be interviewing for some of these head-coaching vacancies around the league. It really is a mystery. Of course, the most obvious answer is that it’s harder for all teams to play on the road -- especially when weather conditions become a factor. And the Saints have had some road struggles in the past (including an 0-3 playoff record with Sean Payton and Drew Brees). But even in those playoff losses, their offense showed up. We've never seen a season quite like this, where they've had so much trouble scoring points on the road.

Honestly, it’s really come down to the football stuff: Early turnovers that put them in a hole, drive-killing penalties, an inability to stop the run. I expect their offense will still put up plenty of yards and points in this game, but I’m curious to see if they can avoid those costly turnovers -- and if they can find a way to contain LeSean McCoy. Those are the trends they must reverse from their previous road losses.

While we’re dwelling on the negative, what could be the Eagles’ fatal flaw? If something goes wrong for them in this game, what do you think it will be?

Sheridan: The Snowball Effect. While the Eagles' defense has done a remarkable job of keeping points low -- 11 of the past 12 opponents have scored 22 or fewer -- there is a persistent suspicion that the smoke could clear and the mirrors could crack. Matt Cassel hung 48 points on them two weeks ago, the most since Peyton Manning put up 52 in Week 4. Even Sunday night, Kyle Orton was only a couple of slightly better throws away from scoring another touchdown or two. Brees is obviously capable of making those throws. If the Saints can move the ball the way many teams have, plus translate the yards into points, it could force the Eagles to play catch-up. And we haven’t really seen Nick Foles in a shootout-type game yet. Jay Cutler didn't show up two weeks ago when the Bears came to town, and a freak snowfall took Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson out of their game.

The stats say Rob Ryan has transformed the Saints' defense from a farce into a force. Does that align with what you see when you watch them? Does Ryan have the scheme and the personnel to be physical with the Eagles' receivers while getting pressure on Foles?

Triplett: That’s absolutely true, Phil. Ryan has been an outstanding fit for this team. I know Philly fans didn't see his best results with the Dallas Cowboys the past two years. But it must have been a perfect storm here, where the Saints' defense had just given up the most yards in NFL history under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in 2012. The players were ready for a change -- and Ryan is all about change. He constantly adapts his approach from week to week, building around his players’ strengths and tailoring game plans for certain opponents.

Several young players are having breakout years -- including pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette (12 sacks each this season) and cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is a true No. 1 corner. He’s physical with long arms and plays well in man coverage. I imagine he’ll be matched up a lot against DeSean Jackson.

From what I've read about Chip Kelly, it seems as though he’s a kindred spirit of both Ryan and Sean Payton -- trying to create confusion and mismatches. Is it possible for you to boil down his philosophy to one or two paragraphs?

Sheridan: Force the issue. That’s the underlying principle. It’s behind the no-huddle, up-tempo approach, and it drives many of the unusual things he does with formations and blocking schemes. Kelly wants to spread the field horizontally and vertically, forcing defenses to account for every offensive player and every square foot of grass. He’ll line right tackle Lane Johnson out like a wide receiver, or left tackle Jason Peters at tight end on the right, or DeSean Jackson in the backfield, just to see how the defense responds. If he sees a mismatch, he’ll exploit it until the defense corrects it.

It must be said that Kelly inherited a lot of offensive talent that was pretty darn good under Andy Reid. The line has been outstanding and, just as important, healthy. Jackson, McCoy and the other skill players are exceptional. The X factor has been the way Foles has mastered what Kelly wants to do. There are a lot of quick reads and decisions for the quarterback to make -- whether it’s a zone-read or a package play with run/pass options -- and Foles has translated Kelly’s dry-erase board to the field very well, leading the Eagles to a 7-1 record since they were 3-5 at the midway point.

Payton is a similar creative offensive mind with an NFL pedigree. The first time I met him, he was the Eagles' quarterback coach on Ray Rhodes' late 1990s teams, trying to win with Bobby Hoying and various Detmers. Is he any different or more driven since serving his one-year suspension? Is there a sense the Saints are back where they belong and determined to make a deep run?

Triplett: I think it’s a great comparison. Although the offenses don’t look identical, the philosophies are the same -- create, identify and exploit mismatches. The Saints will actually rotate in a ton of different personnel groupings early in games, as well as mix up their formations, to see how defenses react.

Payton hasn't changed drastically this season. One of the things that stood out to me most early in the season was his patience in games -- how he’d stick with a methodical attack, settling for a lot of check-down passes, etc., to win games against teams such as Chicago and San Francisco. Lately, Payton's been a little stumped in similar-style games on the road, though.

Overall, the idea with him is that he is hyperfocused on every detail that can help this team win. Brees keeps saying Payton’s leaving no stone unturned. It started with switching defensive coordinators on his second day back on the job, then things such as changing the team’s conditioning program, then recently switching out the left tackle and kicker heading into Week 16.

I’ll leave you with a quick question, Phil. Who are the one or two players we haven’t talked about much who could have a big impact on this game? From my end, the answer would probably be those young pass-rushers, Jordan and Galette.

Sheridan: I’m going to go with the Eagles’ key pass-rushers, too -- Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole and Connor Barwin. The Eagles didn't sack Orton at all Sunday night in Dallas. Orton is no Brees, but he does get the ball out quickly. So it might not result in many sacks against the Saints, but the defense has to disrupt Brees' rhythm as much as possible. Cole had eight sacks in the second half of the season. Cox has been outstanding at collapsing the pocket. Barwin is as likely to jam Jimmy Graham at the line of scrimmage as rush the passer.

But somebody from that group -- or maybe it will be Brandon Graham or Vinny Curry -- has to make Brees feel uncomfortable, or it’s going to be a long night for the Eagles. As you pointed out, the Saints have made more mistakes on the road than at home. Forcing some of those mistakes, preferably early, could make the air feel colder and the wind feel sharper.


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Newton/PetersonGetty ImagesCam Newton looks to take advantage of a spotty Vikings secondary, but the Panthers may have their hands full with Adrian Peterson.
Both the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers have reason to feel they should be better than 1-3 through their first four games of the season. One of those teams will get to stoke its flickering playoff hopes Sunday at Mall of America Field, while the other will fall even further out of the picture.

The Vikings have yet to announce whether Christian Ponder or Matt Cassel will start, and it might not be long before Josh Freeman takes over the quarterback job. But while the quarterback position might be the most intriguing question facing the Vikings at the moment, it probably isn't the most pressing one. That would be in the secondary, where the Vikings are hoping Chris Cook and Jamarca Sanford return from injuries to help a team that's given up an average of 326 passing yards a game and allowed decisive touchdowns on a pair of last-minute drives.

That could be good news for a Panthers team that's so far had more problems on offense than defense. Carolina has scored just 74 points, turning the ball over nine times and throwing for more than 220 yards just once this season. Third-year quarterback Cam Newton -- who came into the league with Ponder in 2011 -- has continued to struggle. Even though the Panthers have allowed the third-fewest points in the league, outscoring opponents through four games, they are trying to keep their season alive, just like the Vikings are.

ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Panthers reporter David Newton broke down this week's matchup:

Ben Goessling: David, I have a feeling the Panthers are as steamed about their record through four games as the Vikings are. Both of these teams lost in the waning seconds in Week 2, and neither has gotten good enough quarterback play to help their playoff aspirations after late-season surges in 2012. At first glance, though, this matchup would seem to favor the Panthers, who have done an excellent job of stopping the run and might force the Vikings to lean on their passing game more than they'd like to at home. How do you think this defense matches up against Adrian Peterson, and how much trouble can it give whomever starts for the Vikings at quarterback?

David Newton: This matchup definitely seems to favor the Carolina defense that has played well enough to win every game. Yeah, Arizona scored 22 points. But that's a bit misleading since two came on a safety late in the third quarter and the last came on a real short field with just over two minutes left after Cam Newton's fourth turnover. The Panthers actually improved from 10th to third in total defense, holding Arizona to 250 total yards. Stopping Adrian Peterson will be the challenge, but Carolina has done a good job all season of making opponents pass with a stout front seven that is allowing only 92.3 yards a game. The key in my opinion will be how much pressure the front four can put on whomever the Vikings play at quarterback. Arizona went with three-step drops and quick passes to somewhat negate that and frustrate pass-rushers Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. But what has made Carolina successful against the rush and the pass is that it has been able to stop both without using a lot of blitz packages that sometimes opens big holes for big-time backs like Peterson.

While we're on defense, the Vikings haven't really faced a quarterback that can run and throw like Newton this year, and they are ranked 30th on defense. How do you see that matchup?

Goessling: I don't particularly like it for the Vikings. They probably struggled the most in Week 1 against the Detroit Lions, when they were facing a team with a dynamic passing game and a shifty running back (Reggie Bush) who did a lot of his damage thanks to missed tackles on the first and second levels of the Vikings' defense. The Vikings also haven't faced much of the read-option in the last two years, and when they did see it -- particularly against Robert Griffin III last year -- they struggled with it. I could see Cam Newton giving the Vikings problems with his feet, and Ben Roethlisberger also showed how you can burn the Vikings' young secondary by keeping plays alive. If Newton can avoid turnovers (and the Vikings have caused 12 of them this season), he could direct the Panthers' offense to a big day.

Here's the question the Vikings are probably asking themselves, though: How erratic will Newton be? He's part of that 2011 quarterback class (like Ponder) that has struggled quite a bit in the NFL, and as you mentioned, his turnovers cost the Panthers against Arizona. Will he be able to take advantage of the Vikings defense, or will they have their chances to create a few takeaways off of him?

Newton: Let me clarify first. Newton's turnovers in the fourth quarter did lead to the widening of the margin at Arizona, but he played well early and the Panthers would have been -- should have been -- up by two scores at halftime if Steve Smith hadn't dropped a 4-yard touchdown pass and Brandon LaFell a first-down pass at the Arizona 15. But Newton has been inconsistent with his throws, particularly if pressured. When given time like he had against the Giants he was able to pick apart the defense. Teams that have pressured Newton, particularly with five-man fronts, have forced him into mistakes. Looking at the numbers, it appears the Vikings haven't done a great job of pressuring quarterbacks. That to me is where this game will be won or lost for Minnesota.

While we're on quarterbacks, what's been wrong with Ponder this year? And if Josh Freeman is the answer, why not go ahead and give him a shot this week?

Goessling: Ponder's issues have been the same ones we've seen from him during his entire run in Minnesota. It just seems like he's apprehensive about pulling the trigger unless he's got a perfect throwing lane or a receiver who's a step clear of his defender. That throws off his timing, or he gives up and takes off, when a more confident quarterback might be able to hit a receiver for a 15-yard gain in tight coverage. Essentially, he's just not confident enough to make the tough throws, and his interceptions have come when he's flinched and either thrown a pass too early or failed to put enough on the ball. That might be why the Vikings seem ready to move on -- Ponder's issues are about more than his physical attributes, and that's a hard thing to fix.

As for Freeman, the Vikings want to give him time to learn the offense, and while I'm guessing we'll see him in a week or two, particularly if the Vikings lose, my hunch is Matt Cassel will get a chance to build on his Week 4 win this Sunday.

To wrap this up, what do you think is the biggest key to a Panthers victory?

Newton: I almost laugh when you say key to victory because this team simply doesn't know how to win -- at least on a consistent basis when it matters. This is the third straight 1-3 start and they haven't had a winning record since 2008. But as coach Ron Rivera keeps saying, they are close. But they were close last week and blew countless opportunities to take command in the first half and wound up looking dismal. It seems almost every week it's a breakdown in another area, or multiple areas. If I had to pick one key, though, it would be for the offensive line to give Newton protection. When he has time, the Panthers score points. If they score points, the defense will take care of itself.

How about for the Vikings?

Goessling: I agree that getting to Newton is a big part of the equation; they need to force him into turnovers and keep him from putting their defense on its heels. This is a team that plays its best when it gets an early lead, can run Adrian Peterson and turn its defensive line loose. If the Vikings do that, they might be able to cover up their issues in the secondary and sneak out with a victory.

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NFC South evening update

October, 10, 2012
10/10/12
6:22
PM ET
Let’s take an evening run through some news and notes from around the NFC South:

ATLANTA FALCONS

In this radio interview, receiver Roddy White has some fun with tight end Tony Gonzalez, who has said he probably will retire after this season. White seems to think Gonzalez has at least another year left in the tank. That’s pretty conceivable after Gonzalez went out and caught 13 passes against the Redskins on Sunday.

Linebacker Stephen Nicholas was held out of Wednesday’s practice with an ankle injury. If Nicholas can’t play Sunday against Oakland, the Falcons likely would turn to veteran Mike Peterson.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

With the Panthers on a bye week and a bad season getting worse with the loss of center Ryan Kalil, it might be time to take a look at this Insider post in which Mel Kiper Jr. has his Big Board for the 2013 draft. I’m thinking defensive tackle Star Lotulelei sounds like a possible fit for the Panthers.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Nakia Hogan writes about how young defensive ends Martez Wilson and Junior Galette stepped up in the victory over the Chargers. With it now looking like Will Smith will have to serve his four-game suspension after all, Wilson and Galette could take on bigger roles. I’m also thinking that, despite all the criticism defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has taken early in his tenure, he could be starting to develop two pretty good young pass-rushers.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

With Matt Cassel going through the league’s protocol for a concussion, the Bucs could see Brady Quinn as Kansas City’s starting quarterback on Sunday. I’m not sure it really matters which quarterback the Chiefs use. The Bucs have a bigger concern and that’s stopping running back Jamaal Charles.

Wrap-up: Chiefs 27, Saints 24 (OT)

September, 23, 2012
9/23/12
5:10
PM ET

Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 27-24 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday:

What it means: Last week, I said it was time for the Saints to panic. My point was that they needed to do something dramatic before this season got out of control. They might be at that point now. They controlled things for most of the day in a game in their own stadium and they still ended up losing. The Saints are 0-3 and in sole possession of last place in the NFC South. The Saints have dug themselves a big hole and it’s not going to be easy to climb out of. The last time the Saints started 0-3 was 2007, when they lost their first four games and failed to make the playoffs. It probably remains a little too early to say the Saints' season is over, but look at the next opponent on the schedule (at the bottom of this item) and it's tough to imagine New Orleans suddenly turning things around.

Defensive woes continue: Kansas City wasn’t supposed to be an offensive powerhouse and, early on, it looked like a New Orleans defense that struggled in its first two games was going to be all right. But the defense collapsed, particularly the run defense. Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles carried 33 times for 233 yards, including a 91-yard touchdown run. Matt Cassel threw for 248 yards. The Saints could have survived that if their run defense had just kept Charles in check. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's been taking a lot of heat from fans. What happened Sunday isn't going to stop that.

What happened to the offensive line? I’m not going to put the blame for the collapse of the offensive line solely on the loss of guard Carl Nicks to Tampa Bay in free agency. I certainly think the loss of Nicks was a factor. But I think some other members of the offensive line are underachieving. The Chiefs aren’t a team known for generating much of a pass rush. They came up with a strong pass rush against Drew Brees and even scored a safety late in regulation by sacking Brees in the end zone. Brees has had to face too much pressure so far this season. He banged up his ankle last week and there were times on Sunday when Brees seemed to be limping a bit after taking big hits from the Chiefs. If Brees suffers any sort of injury, whatever is left of the Saints’ season is over.

What’s next: The Saints travel to Lambeau Field to play the Green Bay Packers next Sunday.

Around the NFC South

September, 20, 2012
9/20/12
10:47
AM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Time for a look at the headlines from around the division.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said the secondary doesn’t deserve all the blame for Eli Manning throwing for 510 yards Sunday. He said the front seven of the defense could have given the secondary a lot more help.

It appears as if the Bucs are going to stick with Demar Dotson as their starting right tackle. Jeremy Trueblood had his chance under the new regime and didn’t make the most of it.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel said he’s looking forward to the atmosphere in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. I’m not sure he’ll be so fascinated on Sunday when he’s trying to get his team lined up before the play clock expires.

Although the numbers still are prolific, Nakia Hogan points out the New Orleans passing game hasn’t been as sharp as in the past. It’s been held back by dropped passes, penalties and missed assignments.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The Panthers want to upgrade Bank of America Stadium with new video boards and escalators. It’s not clear if the team will seek public funding. The stadium, which opened in 1996, was built without any taxpayer money.

In his third season, Brandon LaFell has emerged as a solid No. 2 receiver. He might be the best complement to Steve Smith the Panthers have had since Muhsin Muhammad.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Cornerback Christopher Owens is going through the league’s concussion protocol. I’d guess it’s very unlikely he’ll be ready to play Sunday at San Diego. That means either Dominique Franks or Robert McClain likely will have to take over as the nickel back.

Although he’s off to a slow start and was charged with DUI on Tuesday, Mark Bradley writes that it’s not time for the Falcons to unload Michael Turner. His point is that the Falcons still need a running game and that’s very true. Turner might not be what he was in the past, but the Falcons need him (and Jacquizz Rodgers) to supply a bit of a running game to keep defenses honest against Atlanta’s passing game.

Around the NFC South

September, 8, 2012
9/08/12
9:50
AM ET
Time for a look at the Saturday morning headlines from around the NFC South:

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Andrew Brandt writes that an appeals panel’s decision to overturn the suspensions of players in the bounty saga is a blow to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s power, at least in the short term. But this story is far from over. The panel simply said that Goodell did not have the jurisdiction to issue punishments based on non-contract payments. Goodell still can issue discipline on detrimental contact. Maybe it will be fines or shorter suspensions, but I think Goodell still will try to send a strong message about bounty programs.

Along those same lines, Mike Triplett reminds us that the lifting of the suspensions might be only temporary. He also says Goodell and the players involved should use the next few days to hammer out a settlement with reduced punishments. But he’s right when he says that probably won’t happen. Goodell and the players drew their lines in the sand long ago, and it’s hard to see either side swallowing its pride.

It remains to be seen if defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who had their suspensions overturned, will play in Sunday’s opener against Washington. Smith didn’t practice this week. But he’s a veteran and he did go through all of training camp and the preseason. I don’t think missing a few days of practice would hold him back all that much. Vilma is another story. He was rehabbing an injured knee before his suspension began. Vilma’s knee still might not be ready. There’s a chance the Saints might have to start the season with Vilma on the physically unable to perform list.

ATLANTA FALCONS

It sounds like cornerback Asante Samuel has a firm grip on what his role with Atlanta is. Samuel might not start, but he’ll get plenty of playing time as the Falcons are expected to use lots of three-corner sets. Samuel’s skills aren’t the only reason the Falcons traded for him. He’s a confident guy, and the Falcons want their defense to have a little more swagger.

Speaking of the intangibles Samuel can bring to the Falcons, we might get a look at another one Sunday. Samuel might be able to give his teammates some inside information on how to defend Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel. Samuel and Cassel were teammates in New England. In those days, Samuel got a lot of practice time against Cassel, who ran the scout team.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Coach Greg Schiano said quarterback Josh Freeman doesn’t need to feel the weight of the world on his shoulders. I think that’s something Freeman did way too much of last season when he forced throws and made bad decisions. But the Bucs have gone to extremes to upgrade his supporting cast. Freeman’s performance still is critical, but he should be in a position where he doesn’t feel like he has to carry the team.

Freeman was elected a captain by his teammates. Receiver Vincent Jackson is the other offensive captain. Gerald McCoy and Ronde Barber are the defensive captains. Andrew Economos and Adam Hayward are the captains for special teams.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

After hosting the Democratic National Convention, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx said one of the city’s next goals is to host a Super Bowl. I think that might be a little overly ambitious. Charlotte has an outdoor stadium, and its weather in January and February can be less than ideal. The NFL has shown a willingness to give Super Bowls to cold-weather cities that have indoor stadiums. It also has awarded the 2014 Super Bowl to the New York area, and that game will be played outdoors. But that deal came down as a reward for getting a new stadium, plus it’s New York, the nation’s biggest city.

As they have every year for as long as I can remember, Tom Sorensen and Scott Fowler have dueling columns in which they predict how the Panthers will fare. Sorensen has them winning 10 games and making the playoffs. Fowler has them at 8-8. Either one could be right. But let me give you a little insight on my two friends and former co-workers. Fowler is multi-talented. But, when it comes to predictions, Sorensen has a certain gift. It’s almost like he’s clairvoyant. I once remember him predicting a former colleague we’ll refer to as “Stan’’ would have a chicken-salad sandwich for lunch. Amazingly, "Stan'' opened his brown bag a few minutes later and pulled out a chicken-salad sandwich.
All the talk about Drew Brees' quest for a new contract that will make him the highest-paid player in the NFL got me thinking about quarterback salaries and average per year.

It remains very likely that, sometime between now and Monday afternoon, Brees and the Saints will work out a contract that pays him somewhere around an average of $20 million per season. That would put Brees on top of the list of quarterback pay. He’s earned that honor.

But what about the rest of the NFC South quarterbacks?

First off, let’s be clear that none of them are at the same level as Brees. But two of them are likely to come up for contract extensions sooner rather than later and Brees could help raise the bar.

As it stands right now, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is tied for No. 13 in average per year at $11.25 million. Ryan’s contract currently runs through the 2013 season and there have been some rumblings the Falcons could start looking to extend him. Unless he goes out and wins the Super Bowl this season, I don’t think Ryan falls into the category of elite quarterbacks, but I think it would take an average of somewhere between $14 million and $16 million a season to lock him up.

Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman ranks No. 22 with a $5.24 million average per year. Freeman’s coming off a tough season, but still has plenty of upside and also has a contract that expires after the 2013 season. If the Bucs really believe he is their franchise quarterback, they might be wise to try to extend him before Freeman gets a chance to get back on the field and really drive his price tag into the upper echelon. Then again, the Bucs might want to wait a bit to see if Freeman can recapture his style of play from the 2010 season before making any big commitment.

Carolina’s Cam Newton is No. 21 with a $5.506 million average salary. Although he was the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft, Newton’s first contract was less than a lot of guys drafted in the years just ahead of him because the league put in new rules last year that limit rookie contracts. If Newton continues to play like he did as a rookie, he could be looking at numbers like Brees a few years down the road.

I’ve assembled a list of the top 32 quarterbacks, based on average salary per year. Here it is:

The final results are in and I’m happy to announce the Atlanta Falcons gained a grand total of 68 yards on screen passes this season.

Although the Falcons say they have plenty of screens in their playbook, they don’t use them very often. Quarterback Matt Ryan attempted just 20 screens during the regular season and completed 16 of them.

Kevin Kolb (62 yards), Matt Cassel (17 yards) and Kyle Orton (17 yards) are the only quarterbacks with fewer yards on screen passes than Ryan, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The difference there is that Ryan started all 16 games, while Kolb, Cassel and Orton all missed time due to injuries or poor performance.

Carolina rookie Cam Newton led the NFL with 497 yards on screen passes, while completing 58 of 63. New Orleans’ Drew Brees was No. 4 with 437 yards. Brees completed 54 of 62 screens.

Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman was No. 11 with 290 yards. He completed 39 of 46 screen attempts.

Falcons up to 68 yards on screens

December, 22, 2011
12/22/11
1:06
PM ET
Call it icing on the cake, padding the stats or whatever you want. But the Atlanta Falcons now are up to a whopping 68 total yards on screen passes. Yep, the Falcons gained seven yards on a screen in their victory against Jacksonville.

For those who don’t get sarcasm, this is it. At various points throughout the season, we’ve been tracking how little the Falcons use the screen pass. Quarterback Matt Ryan has completed 16 of 19 screens. Of the quarterbacks who have started every game, Ryan has less attempts and less yards than anyone. Of the quarterbacks on the list from ESPN Stats and Information, Kansas City’s Matt Cassel comes the closest to Ryan and the Falcons. Cassel has completed 11 of 15 screens for 17 yards. But Cassel has dealt with injuries and started just nine games.

For the sake of comparison, let’s take a look at what the other NFC South quarterbacks have done on screen passes. Carolina rookie Cam Newton has thrown for a league-high 439 yards while completing 50 of 55 screens.

New Orleans’ Drew Brees is No. 4 in the league with 367 yards while completing 47 of 54 attempts. Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman has completed 34 of 39 screens for 263 yards.

Memo to Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey: I get it that Michael Turner isn’t the best receiver in the league out of the backfield and that you want to save his energy for rushing attempts. But Jason Snelling’s the kind of back that can run over people if he gets a running start, and rookie Jacquizz Rodgers is the kind of back that at least has the potential to blow by defenders any time he touches the ball. Besides, if you end up in that head-coaching job in Jacksonville, there's a guy named Maurice Jones-Drew who can have a pretty big impact on screens. So it might be a good idea to at least try a few more screens.
Only a week ago, we were congratulating the Falcons for reaching 62 total yards on screen passes this season. Looks like we’ve got to pull back on that one.

The latest numbers from ESPN Stats & Information are out and, although the Falcons completed the one screen pass they threw in Sunday’s game at Carolina, they’ve taken a step back. They now are at 61 yards.

Matt Ryan has completed 15 out of 17 attempts on screens. That’s not a lot. Although the Falcons say they have plenty of screen passes in their playbook, they’ve used them less than just about any team in the NFL. Plus, when they have used them, they’ve gained almost nothing. The Falcons are averaging 3.6 yards per attempt on screens and they haven’t scored a touchdown.

I’m searching for something to compare that to and not coming up with much.

Denver’s Tim Tebow also has attempted 15 of 17 screen attempts. But Tebow hasn’t even been starting all season. Plus, Tebow’s screens have resulted in 125 yards and three touchdowns.

I’m looking at the rest of the list and seeing only three quarterbacks who have attempted 17 or fewer screen passes. One is Minnesota rookie Christian Ponder (12 of 17 for 77 yards and three touchdowns) and he hasn’t been the starter all season.

Arizona’s Kevin Kolb has missed time with injuries, but he’s completed eight of 14 screens for 62 yards and a touchdown. I guess the only guy Ryan looks good next to is Kansas City’s Matt Cassel, who also has missed time with injuries. Cassel has completed 11-of-15 for 17 yards and no touchdowns.

The other NFC South quarterbacks have had a lot more opportunities to throw screens. Carolina’s Cam Newton has completed 47-of-51 for 430 yards and a touchdown.

New Orleans’ Drew Brees is 43-of-50 for 269 yards and a touchdown. Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman has completed 32-of-37 for 254 yards and no touchdowns.
Congratulations to the Atlanta Falcons. They have blown past the 60-yard mark on screen passes for the season.

Yep, the Falcons now have completed 14 of 16 screen passes for 62 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They’ve all been thrown by Matt Ryan. The only starting quarterbacks who have attempted fewer screen passes than Ryan are Minnesota’s Christian Ponder (15), who did not open the season as the starter, Arizona’s Kevin Kolb (14) and Kansas City’s Matt Cassel (15), who each have missed time due to injury.

I understand that the Falcons’ priority is the deep passing game, even though that hasn’t worked all that well. But I’m still perplexed by why they don’t mix in a few more screens. Rookie Jacquizz Rodgers seems like the perfect type of running back to use on screens and Jason Snelling and Michael Turner also are capable of catching the ball out of the backfield. Maybe a few more screens would help open up the deep-passing game.

For the sake of comparison, let’s look at what the other NFC South teams have done with the screen. New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Carolina’s Cam Newton are tied for No. 2 in the league with 44 attempts. Only Detroit’s Matthew Stafford (49) has attempted more screen passes.

People think of Newton as having a big arm, and he does, but he leads the league with 41 completed screens for a league-high 355 yards.

Brees has completed 39 of his screens for 265 yards. Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman has completed 27 of 31 screens for 211 yards.
QB Power Rankings IllustrationESPN.com IllustrationNew England's Tom Brady received six of the eight first-place votes to edge out Peyton Manning.
ESPN.com’s NFL writers rank the top 10 quarterbacks in the league today.
Next week: Top 10 safeties.


Take eight football writers scattered from Seattle to Tampa and ask them to come up with a list of the top 10 quarterbacks in the National Football League.

Sounds easy enough, in theory. You take the golden gunslingers, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, and let everyone else fall naturally into order after that. Well, it didn’t quite work out that simply in ESPN.com’s Power Rankings for quarterbacks.

Heck, we couldn’t even come up with a top 10. We’re going with a top 11 because Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and Dallas’ Tony Romo tied for No. 10 with five points each in our voting system.

Even at the top, there was more disagreement than you might expect. Brady emerged as No. 1, but it wasn’t unanimous and, although Manning finished a strong second, two ballots had a man some consider the best quarterback ever at No. 3.

But let’s start analyzing the rankings by focusing on just Brady and Manning. Six voters put Brady at No. 1, but Paul Kuharsky and Mike Sando put Manning in the top spot. Let’s hear them out.

“Brady's fantastic, let's start with that,’’ said Kuharsky, who covers the AFC South, also known as “The Division Manning Built and Owns." “But no one is asked to do more or does more as a quarterback than Peyton Manning. He almost plays a different position. And while Brady's got three rings to Manning's one and is the reigning MVP, look at their touchdown and interception numbers in their last four playoff games. Manning's are better.’’

Sando has no horse in this race, because voters unanimously agreed the NFC West is the division that forgot quarterbacks, at least until Sam Bradford gets another season under his belt.

“Brady has the better stats over the last couple seasons, but the Colts would undoubtedly be far worse off than the Patriots if both teams had backups under center,’’ Sando said. “Once that was established, Brady's recent postseason struggles became a deciding factor. These quarterbacks have, to an extent, switched roles recently. Manning has won a championship more recently than Brady has won one. Brady has seven touchdowns, seven picks and one victory in his last four playoff games. Manning has seven touchdowns, two picks and two victories in his last four.’’

For rebuttal, let’s head up to the AFC East, to the man who covers Brady and the New England Patriots.

“I'm not sure why everybody needs to consider career achievements when filling out a Power Rankings ballot,’’ Tim Graham said. “Power Rankings are a snapshot of the moment and are expected to change regularly, not encompass years of work. But if the reason for selecting Manning ahead of Brady is recent playoff performances that go back a few years, then Ben Roethlisberger should be ahead of Manning with that logic. Roethlisberger has been to a pair of Super Bowls and won his second title more recently than Manning's only championship.’’

We’ll come to Roethlisberger in just a moment, but nobody put him ahead of Manning on his ballot. Kevin Seifert and I each put a quarterback ahead of Manning.

Seifert put Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers at No. 2.

“Mostly, I didn't think I could face NFC North blog readers if I voted any other way,’’ Seifert said. “Seriously, I think the big advantage Manning and Drew Brees have over Rodgers is time. They've been playing longer and therefore have mostly better career numbers and a bigger frame of reference for knowing how they will perform in the long term. But when you take out longevity, Rodgers is right there with them. All three have one Super Bowl victory. Rodgers has a higher career passer rating than any quarterback in the history of the NFL with qualified attempts, better than Manning and Brees and Brady for that matter. So to break the tie, I think you can look at what they did most recently. I think Rodgers had a better 2010 season than Manning or Brees, and that's how I would justify this order.’’

I put Brees at No. 2 and don’t really want to write a story in which I quote myself, so I’ll just say Brees and Manning each have one Super Bowl ring and Brees’ numbers over the last four years are just as good or better in most categories. Plus, Brees hasn’t spent most of his career surrounded by the likes of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Edgerrin James.

In the final analysis, Brees finished third and Rodgers fourth. Roethlisberger, who has two Super Bowl rings, came in at No. 5. San Diego’s Philip Rivers, who has zero Super Bowl rings and some gaudy statistics, is No. 6. Relatively speaking, the order from Brees to Rivers, the guy who took his place with the Chargers, was pretty clear-cut.

After that, we had some close calls, strong differences of opinion and one very big coincidence. At No. 7, we’ve got a tie between Philadelphia’s Michael Vick and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, who each finished with 26 points. For those who don’t see the irony in that, Vick was the face of Atlanta’s franchise for a long time and Ryan now holds that role.

Eli Manning of the New York Giants came in at No. 9, and Flacco and Romo tied for the final spot. Only three other quarterbacks received votes. They were Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman, who I think could be near the top of this list in another year or two, Houston’s Matt Schaub and Kansas City’s Matt Cassel.

On to some other notes about the Power Rankings.

Michael Vick
Michael DeHoog/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesOne recent year of success wasn't enough to put Eagles quarterback Michael Vick on John Clayton's ballot.
The Vick factor. Despite a hugely productive season last year, Vick was left off one very important ballot. John Clayton, the dean of all of us, didn’t have the Philadelphia quarterback on his ballot and was the only one of us who didn't.

“The only reason Michael Vick didn’t make my top 10 is because I, after an offseason of thinking, have Michael Vick as my No. 11 quarterback,’’ Clayton said. “That still makes him elite. I have 12 elite quarterbacks. Vick moved into the elite category with his performance last year, but it’s just one year. He can clearly move up the list this season, but he’s in the mix and knocking on the door of the top 10. A year ago, he wasn’t a consideration.’’

Fighting the Eli fight. Speaking of Clayton, let’s continue to ride that train as we discuss Eli Manning. Seifert, Sando, Graham and I didn’t even include Manning in our top 10, but he still made the list.

“I will continue to fight the argument Eli Manning is an elite quarterback,’’ Clayton said. “I moved him to No. 8 above Tony Romo, but if Romo had a full season last year, he might have been ahead of Eli. Remember that Carson Palmer, Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb dropped from my elite quarterback categories, which moved guys like Eli up in the mix. Eli has a Super Bowl ring. He’s a 4,000-yard quarterback. He wins.’’

No tiebreaking here. Speaking of Romo: Clayton and Sando each had him at No. 9. AFC North blogger James Walker had Romo at No. 10. That was good enough to get Romo five points and a tie with Flacco. One interesting note here: Flacco wasn’t on Walker’s ballot. I respect James for not doing the easy thing and being a "homer," although I’m sure some Baltimore fans might have different opinions.

"Joe Flacco is a good quarterback, but I don’t consider him an elite, top-10 quarterback just yet,’’ Walker said. “I need to see more consistency, especially in the playoffs and other big games against the Steelers. Flacco has a lot of natural ability, and I believe he’s ready to break through. But, in my book, Flacco needs to first prove it on the field in the biggest games to be elite.”

The final analysis. If you look at this list from a distance, you could say the Atlanta Falcons, San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots are the big winners. The Patriots, of course, have Brady, but they also drafted Cassel, whom they later traded to Kansas City. If you want to get really technical, the Chargers drafted Brees and Eli Manning and worked a draft-day trade with the Giants to end up with Rivers. If you count the few minutes Manning and Rivers were crossing paths, you could say the Chargers, at one time or another, had three guys on this list. You also could say the Falcons drafted Vick, Ryan and Schaub, who finished in a tie with Freeman for No. 12.
Let’s take a quick look back at Atlanta’s 20-10 victory against Kansas City on Friday night. As always, it is merely preseason football, so the score and a lot of other things don't really matter. But let’s sort through what does matter.
  • The biggest question mark about the Falcons is the defense. Well, the early impressions were positive. The first-team defense held the Kansas City offense to just 15 yards on eight plays in the first quarter. Yes, it’s the Chiefs, but this was still a nice start for the defense.
  • The pass rush is the portion of that defense that everyone’s most concerned about. The early results on that were good, too. Kroy Biermann had a sack/fumble against Matt Cassel and Kansas City’s first-team offense. The Falcons have been talking a lot about how they’re going to rotate defensive linemen a lot this season. Biermann might not be a starter, but I think he and John Abraham will be the defensive ends in most passing situations.
  • Sticking with the defense, Cassel was accurate in the first quarter, completing six of eight passes. But that went for a total of 25 yards. In other words, Atlanta’s secondary wasn’t giving up any deep plays.
  • Speaking of the secondary, there’s been a quiet buzz around Atlanta’s camp about safety Shann Schillinger. That got louder against the Chiefs as Schillinger intercepted a pass and returned it 29 yards to set up Atlanta’s first touchdown. As a sixth-round pick, Schillinger was a guy the Falcons thought they might stash on the practice squad when they first drafted him. Now, they’re thinking he’s got a real shot at making the roster as a backup safety with a chance to be a real force on special teams.
  • One subtle thing that I thought was a very encouraging sign was that the Falcons used the no-huddle offense on their second series. I don’t have stats to back this up, but my general sense is they used that system a fair amount in quarterback Matt Ryan’s rookie year and seemed to have success with it. Last season, the Falcons seemed to get away from using it. I think Ryan’s a very sharp guy and would like to see him allowed to run the no-huddle offense a lot more this season.
  • Coach Mike Smith sounded happy with the debut of rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. He started on the weak side as Mike Peterson sat out. Weatherspoon has been working on the strong side also. Everyone keeps asking if he’ll take Peterson’s place or be on the strong side in place of Stephen Nicholas. I don’t think the Falcons have really decided yet. But I think you still will see a lot of all three of those guys, because it sounds like the Falcons plan to rotate linebackers just like they’re going to do with defensive linemen.
 
 Getty Images, AP Photo
 The Buccaneers have signed their core offensive players -- Derrick Ward, Josh Freeman, and Kellen Winslow -- to lucrative long-term contracts.

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas


TAMPA, Fla. -– You can call the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a bad football team. Right now, there’s no evidence to the contrary.

Just don’t go calling them cheap.

I live in Tampa and I hear the accusations every day. The Bucs don’t care about winning and that’s why they’re not spending money, the theory goes.

That’s the problem with theories. All you need is an idea to throw around and it can catch on and spread, even if there’s absolutely nothing to back it up.

The Bucs have their flaws, sure, but being frugal isn’t one of them. Fact is, Malcolm Glazer and his sons who run the team are throwing money around.

Right now, they’re paying Jon Gruden, Bruce Allen and Jeff Jagodzinski $6 million to stay away from their football team. They’re operating out of the palatial One Buccaneer Place, which cost millions to build and I wouldn’t even want to guess what the daily light bill is.

But disgruntled fans are having a field day with the fact that the Buccaneers are roughly $30 million under the NFL’s salary cap. That’s a fact and it’s not disputed. It just needs some clarification.

Allen, the former general manager, came into salary-cap hell when he took over from Rich McKay. The best way to get out of that predicament is to not spend any money and, for four or five seasons, that’s what the Bucs did.

It became habit and unused cap money kept rolling over. The Glazers quietly could have pocketed that money, but they didn’t. They let it build and when new general manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris entered their first free-agency period in February, the Bucs were on an uneven playing field.

The rest of the league started with a cap floor of $123 million. Tampa Bay’s floor was about $150 million.

When free agency started, the Bucs didn’t stand still. They went out and signed Derrick Ward to the biggest contract for any free-agent running back. They traded for tight end Kellen Winslow and turned around and handed him a monstrous contract. They re-signed wide receiver Michael Clayton to a deal many thought was too big.

They made legitimate runs at Albert Haynesworth and Matt Cassel and not getting them might have been a blessing because those high-priced guys aren’t exactly lighting it up. But this isn’t about the virtues of caution.

There’s a wrong perception out there the Glazers are skimping on the Bucs to take care of their Manchester United soccer team. If they were so concerned about pinching pennies, why wouldn’t they have saved a few million and used their first-round pick on a defensive player instead of taking quarterback Josh Freeman as the franchise player for the next decade?

No, the Bucs aren’t being cheap because you really can’t do that in a day and age when there’s a cap floor. You want cheap? Go back to the early days of the Buccaneers when the NFL didn’t have a cap or a floor and owner Hugh Culverhouse wouldn’t pay anybody anything, so he could pocket his television money.

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